Federal Policy

Drilldown: Final ESSA Accountability Rules

Just in time for people to ponder President-elect Donald Trump's choice for education secretary, the U.S. Department of Education has announced the final version of the regulations known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Overall, ESSA hands control over how to define a high-quality, well rounded education to the states and local education agencies (LEAs) while retaining much federal oversight for matters of equity — which is where, some observers suggest, the naming of Betsy DeVos as education secretary could cloud the outcome.

Since ESSA's initial passage in December 2015 the department has been collecting comments about ESSA from teachers; state, district and school leaders; parents; and representatives of education organizations. The tweaks to ESSA reflect many of the concerns raised during that feedback process, especially around the requirements related to timing.

"The final rules give states more time and flexibility to provide every student with a high-quality, well rounded education while ensuring that states and districts keep the focus on improving outcomes and maintaining civil rights protections for all of our children, particularly those who need our support the most," said current U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. in a statement. "The thoughtful comments we received have helped us make our regulations better than our draft proposal, and we are grateful for the input."

ESSA hands over ownership of accountability, intervention and support systems to states and districts, which are also expected to make sure the systems "result in an excellent and well rounded education for every child."

In the area of accountability the final version of the regulations allows states and LEAs to define their own goals and measurements for interim progress on academic outcomes. For example, they'll be able to choose the indicators used to monitor academic progress, school quality and student success. The stipulation, however, is that those indicators must be backed up by research proving that movement on those measures will likely increase student learning, graduation rates, college enrollment, retention, completion or career success. The overall goal, according to the department, is that the accountability system pursue a "holistic" view of student and school success, including measures beyond test scores, without losing the focus on students becoming prepared for college and career readiness.

In the area of school support and improvement the final regulations call for "meaningful action" where whole schools or groups of students within schools are struggling. But they also grant states the leeway to choose "locally designed, evidence-based strategies" that fit the unique circumstances of the given schools. States have until the 2018-2019 school year to begin identifying those schools that will need comprehensive support and improvement — either because they fall into the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state participating in Title I or they have a four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate at or below 67 percent or some other higher percentage designated by the state over three or fewer years. After the initial identification, the same process must be followed at least once every three years.

Among schools that require "targeted" support and improvement, the initial year of identification is 2018-2019 for low-performing subgroups of students, with identification taking place every three years; and 2019-2020 for "consistently underperforming subgroups," and identification taking place every year. The last version of the regulations also highlights that states may identify those underperforming subgroups based on state-developed goals and targets or other definitions tied to the indicators designated for academic progress, school quality and student success.

As a nod to the feedback received, the final edition of ESSA spells out the "critical role" of stakeholders, including parents, students, educators, principals and other school leaders, to develop and implement school improvement activities. It also requires states and districts to identify resource inequities tied to per-pupil expenditures, access to advanced coursework, the professional skills of teachers and access to instructional support personnel and full-day kindergarten and preschool programs.

The final regulations also streamline some of the requirements spelled out in the draft version tied to development of state plans, which each state must submit to the department. Those plans, which are due either by April 3, 2017 or Sept. 18, 2017, whichever deadline a given state chooses, must reflect "broad, robust, and transparent consultation" with a wide and representative range of stakeholders; they must maintain ESSA's emphasis on equitable access for all students; and they must describe the strategies they'll follow in supporting professional development of teachers and administrators and ensuring that all students have access to excellent educators.

In coverage of data reporting the final edition of ESSA states that states and LEAs must provide "clear and robust" data that shows how students and schools are doing. States may design their own report cards or data dashboards as long as those records include information spelling out student achievement, graduation rates and other critical indicators of school quality, climate, and safety. The process of designing those report cards must incorporate feedback from parents, and they need to be made available no later than Dec. 31 each year, beginning in 2018. The graduation rates must reflect the data of students with significant cognitive disabilities who earn alternate diplomas as well as per-pupil expenditures by district and school level.

The draft version of ESSA stated that all students must participate in state assessments and that accountability systems needed to factor in whether the school assessed at least 95 percent of its students. That draft offered suggestions about how to handle this and also provided an option in which states and LEAs could develop their own proposals and plans for drawing participation in assessments. The final rules retain the state-defined option but also give more flexibility in how to handle schools with low test participation rates.

While the latest edition of ESSA is being called "final" by the department, one unknown is what impact DeVos could have on the rules. Nominated by Trump last week for the position of Secretary of Education, DeVos has earned a reputation as being a staunch proponent of school vouchers and, along with her husband, served as the primary promoter of 2000's Kids First! Yes!, a ballot initiative in Michigan that would have amended the state's constitution to permit the use of vouchers and other state aid to pay for non-public education. That initiative was defeated by a margin of 69 percent to 31 percent.

However, that vote might end differently were it taken today, following the implementation of state-developed learning standards and Common Core assessments. Some observers believe that DeVos and a supportive Trump could persuade the Republican majority in Congress to gut funding set aside for Title I initiatives and redirect it to states in the form of block grants to be used as vouchers by families who want their children to attend private schools. That was a "worst case scenario" proposed by Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College. A second scenario proposed by Pallas suggested that DeVos would fail if she tried to privatize education, primarily because Congress had no desire to revisit ESSA at this time.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan shares similar concerns for a DeVos-led federal Department of Education. In a statement issued last week regarding the nomination, the organization pointed to DeVos' ardent support for "the unlimited, unregulated growth of charter schools in Michigan, elevating for-profit schools with no consideration of the severe harm done to traditional public schools." She has done this, the statement noted, "despite overwhelming evidence that proves that charters do no better at educating children than traditional public schools and serve only to exacerbate funding problems for cash-strapped public districts. We believe that all children have a right to a quality public education, and we fear that Betsy DeVos' relentless advocacy of charter schools and vouchers betrays these principles."

The final version of the ESSA rules is located on the Department of Education website here.