After 14 years, Congress has finally overhauled No Child Left Behind. The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) returns substantial autonomy to states when it comes to school accountability, teacher evaluation, school improvement, and much else. The end of NCLB’s requirements and of the Obama administration’s “ESEA waivers” has occasioned both celebration and angst, while creating many opportunities for states to act.
Education Next has invited eight experts to contribute to a special forum on how states should approach the post-NCLB era. Contributors were asked what advice they would offer to states. In particular they were invited to consider what states should include alongside test scores in their accountability systems, how states should set accountability targets and revamp their accountability systems, whether states should continue the teacher evaluation systems adopted as a condition for ESEA waivers, and how states should design interventions for schools flagged as low-performing.
In part 2 of this forum, we include contributions from Charles Barone, Bill Jackson, Dane Linn, and Linda Darling-Hammond. In part 1 of this forum, released yesterday, we included contributions from Nina Rees, Greg Richmond, Aimee Rogstad Guidera, and Mike Magee.
Don’t Turn Away from Testing and Accountability
by Charles Barone
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) shifts a great deal of authority from the federal government to states and school districts. With this shift comes an unprecedented opportunity for states and localities to innovate with regard to student assessments, accountability systems, and interventions. This shift also, however, provides an opportunity for those who wish to whitewash school failure and to stonewall efforts to overhaul education policy through school turnarounds and systemic reforms. The challenges to innovate and to advance the best interests of students for Governors, state chiefs, elected officials, school leaders, and educators are formidable.
Already, we’ve seen states advance policies to gloss over inadequate student achievement and to stymie interventions in low-performing schools. In October, while ESSA conferees were still negotiating, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed into law a new school rating system under which only 30 percent of a school or district’s grade will be based on student achievement. The other 70 percent will be based on “professional practices” and “school atmosphere.” Under this oxymoronic system, a school could receive high grades despite lousy student achievement or abysmal graduation rates. The system would not meet the letter of the new ESSA law, which requires that academic indices weigh more heavily than non-academic ones in identifying low-performing schools. Nonetheless, this system is the kind we will likely see more of as states push the boundaries not just of the law itself but also of how it is monitored and enforced.
Here are six important things policymakers and advocates should keep in mind as they embark on revising their assessment and accountability systems:
1. While opponents of student testing often seem to have the biggest megaphone, polls show an overwhelming majority—70 percent and up—of parents think tests are a valid measure of their child’s achievement level and the quality of schools.
2. Test scores are predictive of student outcomes, both short- and long-term. Research by Raj Chetty of Harvard found that adult outcomes including college attendance rates, quality of college attended, family income, home ownership, and 401(k) savings are highly correlated with test scores in early grades.
3. Very little time is now spent on testing, approximately 1 to 2.75 percent of the school year. State and local tests take up to two or three times as many classroom hours as federally required tests.
4. Accountability works. Transparency of annual student outcomes is helpful to parents, policymakers, and the public. But only when data is tied to action do we see increases in student achievement and high school graduation rates, as well as more dollars and resources directed to low-performing schools.
5. Interventions need to be robust. A 2014 study of schools in Massachusetts found re-staffing to be a key component of successful turnarounds. Of the low-performing schools that replaced 45 percent or more of staff in the first year, nine (75 percent) successfully exited their status as low-performing. Of those that retained 55 percent or more of school staff, only about 30 percent exited low-performing status.
6. States need to reconcile the small percentage of schools that they must identify as low-performing under ESSA with what they need to do to truly ensure that every student succeeds. While states under ESSA need to identify for intervention only the lowest performing 5 percent of schools, high schools with graduation rates under 67 percent, and some unspecified percentage of schools in which at-risk subgroups are underperforming, the National Governors Association reports that “40 percent of all students and 61 percent of students who begin in community colleges enroll in a remedial education course at a cost to states of $1 billion a year.” Those students, who are disproportionately low-income students and students of color are, in turn, at higher risk of not completing college at all.
Only by keeping an eye on what we know will work can we ensure that we prepare every child for college, a well-paying career, and responsible and productive citizenship.
Charles Barone is the director of policy at Democrats for Education Reform and Education Reform Now.
Give Parents High-Quality Information
by Bill Jackson
After years of debate, the newly minted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has finally made one thing clear: states, not the federal government, are in the driver’s seat when it comes to education policy. As the saying goes, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and states now need to think carefully about how they can use their power to benefit millions of American students, teachers and families.
Here’s what I’d suggest to state leaders as they think about how to use their powers wisely.
1. Pay attention to the quality of the test you’re administering.
ESSA requires states to continue testing students in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and to disaggregate the results by student group. Good. But which test states choose matters. Ultimately, state leaders need to insist on a high-quality assessment that gives teachers and parents the information they need to know about whether students are on track for success, and how instruction needs to improve.
PARCC and SBAC are making test forms available to independent evaluators to assess the degree to which their tests meet the criteria identified by the Council of Chief State School Officers for high-quality assessments. Initial results are in for PARCC and they are encouraging. But fewer than half of states are currently part of the PARCC or SBAC consortia. It’s time for the non-consortia states to follow the lead of PARCC and SBAC and build a requirement for independent evaluation into their contracts with assessment providers.
2. Don’t expect “accountability” to do more than it can do.
The best leaders inspire and support their people to get better. They don’t primarily talk the language of “accountability” but rather focus on getting from “poor to good” or “good to great” as the case may be.
Accountability does have its place in education systems: identifying and forcing change in very low-performing schools. States should insist that districts take aggressive action to turn around dropout factories and schools where the vast majority of students are demonstrably not on track for success.
But for 90-95% of schools, improvement is going to come primarily through more subtle and uplifting mechanisms. State leaders should spend more time figuring out what those mechanisms are and investing in developing them.
3. Explore fresh approaches to measuring school quality.
Research conducted by GreatSchools (and others including the Fordham Institute and Education Research Alliance at Tulane University) shows that parents want nearby schools that provide safe environments, but also strong teachers, a solid academic curriculum, and enriching experiences for their children. They want their kids to develop social and emotional skills as well as academic skills.
Today’s educational measurement systems are not up to the task. States can foster innovation and develop approaches to gathering and publishing data beyond test scores, such as student, staff, and parent surveys, career and college readiness benchmarks, and post-secondary outcomes. As they explore possible directions, innovators might want to look to the CORE Districts in California for ideas. CORE’s School Quality Improvement System attempts to provide a balanced view of quality across academics, social-emotional skills, and school climate.
4. Put more power in the hands of parents to choose schools, especially in cities.
After providing more and better information about the character and quality of schools, states should foster more opportunities for parents to choose schools that work for their children. There is no one-size-fits-all best school. States should encourage and support cities to foster a robust education marketplace that enables new and better schooling options to emerge. Recent reports from the Center for Reinventing Public Education and the Fordham Institute show that most cities have a long way to go to get to the point where most parents have the opportunity to choose a high-quality school.
5. Partner to get the word out about school performance.
The era of states publishing school report cards and expecting most parents to find and make use of them is over. Parents want high-quality data that is easy to interpret. GreatSchools.org, used by about 20 million parents, has a far broader reach than state websites. States should focus on improving the quality of school performance data, and then making that data available to third parties so they can work their magic and offer it to all parents.
Bill Jackson is Founder, President and CEO of GreatSchools.
Don’t Weaken Accountability; Strengthen It
by Dane Linn
When the President signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law on December 10, 2015, we entered a new era in this country’s long struggle to improve its schools. The last time the federal government passed an education bill of this magnitude was in 2002, when Congress delivered the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NCLB was an example of classic Washington over-reach, offering too much top-down direction from Washington bureaucracy and failing to generate the necessary ownership by local educators of the law’s new accountability requirements.
Nonetheless, NCLB offered some positive changes that the new ESSA maintains, including academic standards, annual assessments of reading and math achievement, and report cards on schools that students, parents and the public can use to gauge results. With key components from the old system as the foundation, ESSA (which Business Roundtable CEOs supported) is designed to move the federal government out of the decision-making process and give states the flexibility to design their own accountability systems and ensure all students receive an education that prepares them for college and career. Unlike the top-heavy NCLB, ESSA envisions a federal-state partnership—with states clearly in the lead.
Here are five specific strategies that states should use as they develop their new accountability systems:
States must set challenging, yet attainable goals. While the NCLB mandate of having 100 percent of students proficient in reading and math was challenging, it was never viewed as realistic. Under ESSA, states must now set their own goals—both long- and short-term. States shouldn’t back down on making these goals ambitious, but the goals—including goals for all subgroups of students—must be achievable.
In developing state accountability systems, the emphasis must be on academic over non-academic indicators. ESSA requires there to be a “much greater” focus on academic factors (such as test results) than non-academic factors (such as teacher surveys and attendance). However, states will have wide latitude to allow non-academic indicators to play a significant role in school accountability. We urge them to minimize their use. While non-academic factors may be important, they carry the potential to undermine what is ultimately most important: the mandate that schools prepare students to succeed for college, career, or military service.
Keep it simple. It’s probably fair to say that most teachers and parents don’t understand the accountability systems that states currently have. States must use the new law as an opportunity to build or reform their systems in ways that everyone can understand. One way to do this is avoid complex index systems that only confuse educators, parents, and the public and which ultimately undermine efforts to improve schools.
Select proven interventions. States, districts and schools no longer have to implement the one-size-fits all interventions previously mandated under NCLB. They now have the opportunity to select interventions based on local needs. As they do so, it is critical they choose interventions with solid evidence of improving student achievement.
Create transparent systems. A significant portion of state budgets is allocated to the K-12 school system. States need to create systems that help taxpayers know where their money is being spent. Equally important, states, districts, and schools should be able to demonstrate how state funds are being spent to address problem areas. The creation of data dashboards that capture and present this data, along with information required to be reported under ESSA, can be an effective tool to keep the public informed and engaged in transforming local schools.
While the pendulum has shifted away from the federal government, states must not sit back and assume that the federal government has forever abandoned its role in education. It’s important to remember what got the federal government “over-involved” in education in the first place. It wasn’t to replace a well-oiled machine; instead, parents, taxpayers, civil rights leaders and the business community could no longer tolerate an education system that was failing so many of our students. The failure was exemplified by high drop-out rates, dismal national test scores in math, reading, and other subjects, as well as widening achievement gaps.
Despite the overly prescriptive nature of NCLB, many states and local communities took the spirit of the law to heart and, over the past decade and a half, began to transform their education systems. Some of these states have been rewarded with record high graduation rates and an uptick in student achievement, with major gains among students who have traditionally been furthest behind, including students with disabilities.
With the increased authority provided to states under ESSA, states can now take advantage of this flexibility to build even better systems and not as a means to hide from accountability. The new approach presents a true opportunity to build systems that are better tailored for local circumstances, build broad support from schools, teachers, and parents, and keep faith with the belief that all students can learn and deserve the opportunity to succeed.
The business community has a vested interest in ensuring that states are producing graduates who are ready to succeed in college and the workforce. We’re not going to get there by using the new law to weaken accountability. If that happens, we are doing an injustice to our children and this great country. Let’s keep the power with the states and local jurisdictions, and do all we can to hold them accountable for the results. Our future depends on it.
Dane Linn is a Vice President for the Business Roundtable.
Be More Creative About Evaluating Schools
by Linda Darling-Hammond
States should seize the possibilities for more innovative approaches to school improvement posed by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaces a law much criticized for its heavy-handed federal role and for focusing schools heavily on teaching for low-level multiple-choice tests in reading and math to the neglect of other subject areas and higher-level skills. These consequences were most severe in low-income schools most vulnerable to the law’s sanctions for failing to raise test scores. As a result, inequalities in access to a full, rich curriculum widened, while achievement dropped on measures assessing higher-order thinking skills, like the international PISA tests.
The new law encourages states to use multiple measures to evaluate student and school progress. If the goal is to ensure that students are truly college and career ready and that gaps in opportunities and outcomes are closed, these measures should include:
• Outcome measures that are more related to serious skill development and later life success than were the multiple-choice tests of the NCLB era, for example:
– completion of well-designed college and career preparatory courses of study;
– demonstration of college-readiness by passing AP, IB, or transferable college courses;
– 5-year as well as 4-year graduation rates, to encourage schools to keep, take back, and graduate students who fall behind or get off track;
– state assessments—used for information, not sanctions—that measure performance against new standards with fidelity, including the problem-solving, critical thinking, writing, and research skills they entail, and that are designed to be useful for informing instruction;
– progress on English language proficiency assessments;
– success on more challenging performance assessments, likely those widely used in high-achieving countries, such as the research projects, mathematical and computer models, and design solutions a growing number of schools require for graduation and more than 800 colleges now accept as evidence of readiness.
• Measures of opportunities to learn, for example:
– data on school resources (dollars, availability of technology, and qualified teachers);
– access to a full, rich curriculum (science, history / social studies, art, music, world languages, and physical education);
– data on school climate, student and teacher supports, and learning opportunities from student, teacher, and parent surveys.
• Measures of student engagement, for example:
– attendance and chronic absenteeism rates;
– suspension and expulsion rates.
Rather than relying only on a numerical index or an A-F grading system that would obscure the critical information needed for improvement, the measures above should be part of a dashboard that informs educators and the community about progress in each area and allows for analysis of what’s working and where attention is needed. The data should be disaggregated by student group in order to assure progress and opportunities for all children, and to inform a process of continuous evaluation and improvement.
Accountability systems should no longer be dominated by a complex set of annual targets, labels, and sanctions, which inspire gaming, rather than efforts to meet students’ needs. Those old rules created incentives for schools to keep or push out the high-need students who lower average scores. And the old “percent proficient” metric caused schools to focus on the “bubble kids”—those right below the proficiency benchmark—while ignoring others.
Unfortunately, the new law’s prescriptive requirements for identifying the bottom 5 percent of Title I schools for intervention could lead states to assume they must replicate the old accountability metrics from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). However, there is room in the law for a better approach. A continuous improvement approach, like that adopted in California, would track progress on all of the measures in the dashboard, using scale scores to better measure growth and progress for all students, so that schools can continually assess and fine-tune their efforts.
As in California’s CORE districts, a collaborative of ten districts that received a federal waiver under NCLB, the multiple measures can be weighted periodically—the new law requires a determination once every three years—to allow a calculation of which schools are most in need of assistance. CORE publishes no ranking or labelling of all schools, but instead takes a holistic approach to improving education across all the areas in the dashboard and providing assistance where it is most needed.
One school may be doing fine on test scores but working to reduce chronic absenteeism, while another may be working with a network of schools on improving supports for English language learners. Schools receive assistance based on their areas of need. Help can include targeted, high-quality professional development; curriculum improvements; additional time for student learning after school or in the summers; establishment of wraparound services, including community school models; redesign of schools to support personalization and more authentic work in classrooms and internships; or pairing of struggling schools with successful ones serving similar students.
All of these approaches have proved successful when well-implemented. The job of the CORE network of districts—and soon, the new California Collaborative for Educational Excellence—is to ensure that solid strategies are known, disseminated, and well implemented. Schools with the greatest need will get the most intensive assistance, but all schools will be expected to learn and improve each year.
This focus on continuous improvement will be enhanced by replacing the unstable and notoriously imprecise value-added measures derived from state test scores with approaches to teacher evaluation that integrate expert observations with closely related classroom-based measures of student learning, so that teachers can receive productive feedback. States will also benefit from supporting Peer Assistance and Review models that identify teachers who are struggling, provide them with intensive, expert assistance from mentor teachers in their content areas, and make a timely judgment about continued employment that is grounded in useful evidence, intensive support, and due process. A new framework for assessing both teaching and schooling, grounded in the right measures, will support continuous improvement more effectively than the straitjackets of the past.
Linda Darling-Hammond is Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University and President of the Learning Policy Institute.
Last updated January 3, 2016