The Good and Bad: How ESSA State Plans are Faring

The ESSA accountability portions of state plans submitted so far to the U.S. Department of Education have much merit in them, but they also have plenty of "opportunities for improvement," according to an assessment undertaken recently by Bellwether Education Partners in partnership with the Collaborative for Student Success.

Among the "good" news:

  • States are expanding their accountability systems beyond English language arts and math to include science, PE, art and school climate and refining their measures for student attendance;
  • More states are also adding indicators for high schools to monitor the steps students are taking to move beyond K-12 into college and career; and
  • All 17 states have included measures for year-to-year student growth to track how much progress students make over time rather than setting "static determinations" about where students need to be at a given point in their school careers.

However, most of the state delivered too little detail in their plans about how they'll hold schools accountable for performance of subgroups of students, how schools will be identified for improvement and what steps those schools will need to take and how they'll show they've made sufficient progress to leave improvement status.

In these areas, a summary reported, "states generally complied with the bare minimum requirements of federal law, often repeating the exact definitions used in the law." In fact, the authors noted, "despite 18 months since the passage of ESSA, too many states were unable to specify how many schools and how many subgroups each of their proposals would identify."

This exactly touches on an area of concern long expressed by people who have said ESSA gives states too much oversight for their own compliance with the education law. Calling the research on specific school improvement actions "thin," the evidence still suggests "that the threat of strong interventions can lead schools to improve," the report stated. Without the specific threat of interventions in place, however, the report's authors wondered just how states would support low-performing schools. With two exceptions--New Mexico and Tennessee--"states have not yet adequately addressed how they plan to use federal funds to help increase student achievement, increase options for students or intervene in chronically low-performing schools."

Bellwether said it expected the school plans to continue evolving through the federal approval process. In the meantime, other states that are still developing their ESSA plans can use the existing ones as models for building "better plans that take seriously their obligation to improve education and increase equity."

The nonprofit education consultancy brought together 30 education policy experts, including those with state-level experience and those with expertise in the challenges of working with students who have disabilities or are English language learners. The group broke up into small teams to evaluate and score the accountability portions of the plans on a 11-item rubric. Then Bellwether sent the assessments to each of the states, as well as the District of Columbia, all of whom responded to the peer review to clarify aspects of their plans and to provide additional information.

The executive summary of Bellwether's evaluations is available on the organization's website here. Individual states' plans are given attention through the "Check State Plans" site. The state plans submitted to the Department of Education are linked here.

About the Author

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