Ratings Revelations from the First Batch of State ESSA Plans

Written by: Dirk Zuschlag

Primary Source:  Green & Write, April 13, 2017


Although the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) rolls back federal education mandates to allow states more authority over their accountability systems, it nonetheless requires that the Secretary of Education approve each state’s accountability plan to be implemented in the 2017-18 school year. Under an Obama Administration policy, states (and Washington, DC) could submit their respective plans by one of two dates—April 3 or September 18, 2017. Initially twenty opted for the earlier date; by inauguration, at least eighteen still aimed to meet it.

Far fewer in fact submitted their plans by April 3rd. Perhaps it is the multiple, ongoing “hurdles” many states face preparing their plans under the more flexible ESSA regime.  Perhaps the repeal of the Obama Administration’s final accountability rules in late March complicated state decision-making, even as it increased state discretion, and the new administration issued its guidance for accountability plans. In any case, by a week ago Monday, nine states—Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, Tennessee, New Mexico, and Vermont—as well as the District of Columbia had turned in their plans (updated links to state plans here and here). Six other states—Colorado, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, North Dakota, and Oregon—have near final drafts, but they are giving their respective governors, other state political leaders, and/or the public a period for review and comment (here is Michigan’s, for example).[1]

Under the ESSA, each plan must state short-term student achievement and school goals. Progress on these is measured mostly by a minimum number of certain academic factors. In addition, each state must also specify at least one non-academic indicator of student success and school quality. Among other things, each state determines for itself the number and range of additional indicators, their individual contributions to the ratings formula, and how the ratings are publicly displayed—as a summative grade, descriptive category or statistical “dashboard.” It is in these areas—additional indicators and ratings display—that states might substantially innovate and differentiate their school accountability measures and presentations.

The ten submitted plans reveal some divergence in form, but more convergence in substance. It appears that all but two will use a summative index score while also categorizing schools in four or more descriptive tiers. Illinois, for example, will rate its schools as exemplary, commendable, underperforming, or lowest-performing. Nevada will assign 1 to 5 stars. Vermont’s target graphic includes bulls-eye, on-target, near target, and off-target. And Massachusetts’ rather unimaginatively names its six tiers, well, tiers. Popular non-academic indicators include chronic absenteeism (7 states), various measures of college and career readiness (6 states), and 9th grade “success” or “on-track” (3 states).

The range in non-academic indicators, on the other hand, seems pretty broad. At one extreme, Connecticut plans a summative 1-100 point index. It has identified both academic growth and proficiency as two academic indicators totaling 51.8% of the rating, with ten other indicators covering such things as chronic absenteeism, student physical fitness, access to arts education, postsecondary enrollment, test participation rates, and preparation for college- and career-ready coursework, each counting 7.4% or 3.7%. In contrast, New Jersey will also use a summative score with only one additional indicator, chronic absenteeism, weighted at 10%. Other examples include Illinois’ climate surveys and Nevada’s graduation rate indicator which incorporates course/test benchmarks. (State plans also seem more diverse in their long-term goals, which the ESSA requires too, but that’s another story.)

Secretary DeVos is supposed to review each state plan within 120 days of submission. (Several private sector groups may be conducting informal state plan reviews as well.) It is unclear how much the secretary prioritizes this responsibility. And anyway, whether she can undertake any serious review may be problematic, particularly given how understaffed her department is. This issue will only become more acute in September, since many states will presumably wait until then to submit their plans. The school accountability ball really is in each state’s court.

Contact Dirk: zuschla2@msu.edu

[1]The ESSA requires the opportunity for gubernatorial review prior to submission; the April deadline was extended by the new administration to May 3 for this purpose.

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Dirk Zuschlag is a second-year education policy doctoral student. His research interests involve the interaction of teacher professionalism and accountability policies. Prior to entering MSU, Dirk taught public high school social studies for sixteen years and served as a learning coach and staff developer. He also spent thirteen years practicing law earlier in his career. He has a J.D. and an M.A. in Education from the University of Michigan, as well as a B.A. from Duke University.