How states should navigate new opportunities under ESSA

January 4, 2016

By Michael Magee | CEO, Chiefs for Change

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) affords us an opportunity to let the answers to some pretty simple questions drive the complex decisions that states and districts will have to make about accountability system design. We ought to start here: a quality public school prepares all of its students for college and careers. If we take that definition seriously, then other indicators that districts might chose to use to hold schools accountable (such as attendance, student and teacher satisfaction, or community engagement) should rise accordingly.

One of the big mistakes of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was enshrining its aspirational target of 100 percent student proficiency in reading and math by 2014 in the accountability system itself. It was this mistake that caused “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) to become a fundamentally deceptive metric for measuring school performance. Knowing that universal proficiency was not achievable, the federal government allowed states to define how much progress towards that goal would be deemed “adequate.” States predictably played with the progress curves, enabling most schools to celebrate making AYP for a while and creating the 2014 cliff that ushered in the era of NCLB waivers. If the progress measured by AYP wasn’t really adequate, then how could the public put their faith in accountability at all?

Compounding the problem was the fact that the definition of “proficiency” varied widely from one state to the next and was a moving target within many of them. Even had it been accurate and consistent, proficiency was too abstract a goal for the public to get behind.

“College and Career Readiness” may be the meaningful, agreed upon goal we’ve needed. The new state assessments (along with old standards like the SAT, ACT, and AP credits) are diagnostic enough, it seems to me, to have real explanatory power, offering answers to such questions as “Why do only a third of young Americans complete four year college degrees?” and “Why do two-thirds of my state’s community college students require remedial coursework?” And their purpose is clear enough to function as the heart of an accountability system, giving force and purpose to additional measures.

Here, I think, is the recipe for success: Faith in the goal of college and career readiness for all students. Faith in the state assessment of progress towards that goal. Alignment of district and school assessments to the state assessment.

Once everyone is confident in this alignment, other quantitative measures, such as matriculation and graduation rates, become even more meaningful and important. States that focus on creating faith in the goal and the assessment will be better positioned to add nuance to their systems because of a general consensus that the foundation is firm. There is a lot we are likely to learn about college and career readiness during the ESSA era. The goal should stay firm, the assessments elastic.

States should focus their time, energy, and resources where they are likely to have the highest impact on student success. ESSA should not be seen as an invitation to take the overly prescriptive and bureaucratic interventions of NCLB and transfer them from the federal to the state government. What states can do expertly and with a lot of fidelity, it seems to me, is create the ecosystem where everyone—administrators, teachers, parents, and students—has incentives to do the right thing.

In considering consequences for low-performing schools, states should not think in terms of punitive interventions. Rather, they should focus on opening up opportunities for students. I don’t have much faith in states’ ability to micromanage school improvement plans but I have a lot of faith in their ability to incentivize schools to improve and provide other options for their students when they don’t. Between the relatively robust federal Charter School Program, the new ability to use Title I set-aside funds for critical course access, and fast-moving innovations in personalized learning, both states and districts have powerful tools for school improvement. If they combine the smart use of those tools with equally smart investments in teacher and leader effectiveness, the goal of having every student succeed will start to seem less like the horizon line we can’t reach and more like the finish line we can.


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