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The New Era of Education Accountability

By: Lauren Camera

US News

With No Child Left Behind in the rear view mirror and waivers a thing of the past, states are embarking on a new era of school accountability under the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

And as they get to work using their newfound flexibility to create a more personalized system of checks and balances, the question weighing heavy on everyone's mind is whether states will be able to shed No Child Left Behind's one-dimensional accountability system in favor of one that results in measureable improvements.

"As state agencies, we had a lot of information but we didn't do a good job putting it out in a way parents or teachers could engage with," said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, speaking last week during an event on accountability at the Brookings Institution. "It was largely an exercise in becoming transparent, that's how I would explain the No Child Left behind era."


He continued: "I think the promise of ESSA is to go beyond transparency, to go into the idea that it's not enough just to tell a school they're not getting it done for kids, but we have to actually help that school get better."


To be sure, most states have been trying to do just that – operating under their own unique accountability systems for the last two years thanks to waivers issued by the Education Department that exempted states from major provisions of the No Child Left Behind law. Those waivers, however, expired Monday, ushering in a symbolic sea change in K-12 policy.


States will now officially begin shifting away from a one-size-fits-all model mandated under the old law to a new, build-it-yourself model that allows each state to choose for themselves how best to measure their education systems.


"The success of this law really relies on whether or not we can help schools that haven't been getting it done for kids," Minnich said. "This is really going to be on the states to step up and work on this."


Since the passage of the new education law, states across the country have been feverishly meeting to plot out what those new accountability systems might look like.


Under the new law, the federal testing schedule continues to require states to test students annually in grades 3 through 8 in reading and math, and once in high school. It also maintains the requirement that schools annually report student achievement scores and disaggregate that data by subgroups like race, economic status, disability and English-learner status.


States also need to identify and intervene in the bottom 5 percent of their worst performing schools, so-called dropout factories – or schools where more than two-thirds of students aren't graduating – and schools that are failing to close achievement gaps between demographic subgroups. But how they define their poorest performing schools and what interventions they use to improve them are up to the states.


Further, the preserves the requirement that a school district test no less than 95 percent of its students, but it gives states leeway in deciding how to handle schools and districts where large numbers of students opt out of annual testing.


The minutiae surrounding many aspects of the new law's accountability provisions, however, are still in flux, with the Department of Education in the process of finalizing regulations it's proposed regarding how states should read specific parts of the accountability language.


The comment period on the department's proposals closed Monday, and stakeholder remarks provide a snapshot of how states are thinking about using their newfound flexibility.


Many of the proposed regulations earned backing from civil rights groups, including The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.


In many cases, the civil rights groups asked the Education Department to further narrow accountability parameters, including for how states and school districts measure and define subgroups of students and how they identify their poorest performing schools.


But the coalition of organizations, which has long been pressing the Obama administration to beef up safeguards for the country's most disadvantaged students, seems to be in the minority when it comes to supporting most of the department's proposed regulations.


Indeed, many of the comments that came pouring in Monday as the deadline for input on the draft regulations expired urged the Education Department to not be so heavy handed and specific in its definitions of various aspects of the new law's accountability measures.


The politically powerful National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, for example, argued that many of the Education Department's proposed regulations would stifle the ability of states and school districts to create their own unique accountability systems.


NEA officials went so far as to say that the proposed regulation would "likely promote the same counter-productive impacts" of No Child Left Behind.


"We believe that the regulations miss the mark in terms of fidelity to the spirit and letter of ESSA, and instead revive elements of NCLB's test, label, and punish system by adding the agency's own restrictions on goals, indicators, weights, labels, interventions, and state plans," NEA director of education policy and practice, Donna Harris-Aikens, wrote in a letter to the education department Monday.


Included among many consequences the teachers unions predicts as a result of the proposed regulation is a focus on testing over learning, a narrowing of curriculum for disadvantaged students, disincentives for states to set high standards and an over-identification of schools in need of interventions.


"The AFT does have some major concerns that parts of the proposed regulations walk away from ESSA's promise of flexibility and opportunity," wrote AFT president Randi Weingarten in a letter released Tuesday.


Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, toed the line between the two camps.


Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the top Democrats on the Senate and House education committees who helped craft the new education law with their Republican counterparts, touted certain proposed regulations, asked the Education Department for more specificity in some areas and urged the department to take a second look at others they see as too restrictive.


"The Department's unique role in upholding the civil rights legacy of this law is critical to ensure … states and local educational agencies sufficiently support improving outcomes for the nation's disadvantaged students," they wrote in a letter to King, which also underscored that they "seek additional clarity or correction to more closely align the final regulation with Congressional intent."


To be sure, the comments represent a continuation of the ongoing debate between those who seek more stringent protections for historically underserved students and those who want to optimize flexibility under the law – the debate that was at the heart of crafting the legislation last year.


"We cannot go back to a time where we don't have information about how schools are doing," Minnich said. "That's a risk and I think people are properly pushing us to think about how to provide good information back to teachers, students and parents."


He continued: "It's exciting to see the states have this opportunity but I think it's right for people to question whether or not the states are going to step up."