Civil Rights Leaders Fear "Rubber Stamping" of State ESSA Plans Under Federal Review

The United States Department of Education (ED) has deemed 17 plans tied to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) ready for peer review. Each plan is intended to lay out for parents and others how the given state intends to implement the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended by ESSA. States could choose to submit their plans for review by either April 3, 2017 or Sept. 18, 2017. The current crop of submissions came from 16 states as well as the District of Columbia.

In a prepared statement, Secretary Betsy DeVos called the readiness of the plans "a big win for ESSA implementation." She added that she was "committed to returning decision-making power back to states and setting the Department up to serve the support and monitoring roles intended by Congress."

In March the ED issued a revised template for the state plans. This provided an outline for creating a consolidated plan that covered accountability measures, including education of migratory children, homeless children, children at risk and English language learners, as well as programs for academic enrichment grants and 21st century community learning centers.

However, some education leaders viewed the template as a way out of the most prescriptive aspects of ESSA, expressing concern that the plans will simply be "rubber stamped" by the ED. In April a coalition of 25 civil rights and education organizations sent DeVos a letter, urging the ED to evaluate the plans carefully to ensure that the states will hold schools and districts responsible for providing "all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable and high-quality education and close educational achievement gaps."

After reviewing some of the draft plans submitted, the group expressed specific concerns about "several elements," including these:

  • Plans didn't necessarily hold schools responsible for maintaining "disaggregated student achievement." By allowing "so-called 'super-subgroups,'" the letter suggested, schools could use averages of all students to show their improvement rates rather than viewing performance by individual student groups.
  • Indicators showed inconsistency for school ratings across the entire state. "Statewide accountability systems will only be statewide if the indicators used to measure school quality are the same (across a grade span) for all schools and districts," the letter stated.
  • There was evidence of a lack of accountability for schools when less than 95 percent of all students or any subgroup of students weren't included in the state's assessments. As the letter laid out, "Weak or meaningless consequences for failing to meet the participation rate requirement, or loopholes created by the state, could lead to a repeat of past practice in which historically marginalized students were purposefully excluded from the assessment in order to obscure student outcomes."

As the letter stated, "A state's ESSA plan is a declaration of its commitment to the education of all children. This plan should set meaningful, aggressive and achievable goals for ensuring children are prepared for future success and explain how the state will hold schools and districts responsible for educating all students. Parents and communities send children to school every day with the expectation that that school is doing its job and preparing their children for future success. They have the right to know that their state is committed to their children's education and has a plan for what to do when a school is not educating well and needs help. It's time for every state to get serious about their children's future success."

The state plans that have been submitted are now undergoing a staff and peer review process, in which they’ll be examined for compliance with the standards set in ESSA.

Links to the state plans are available on the U.S. Department of Education website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.