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ESSA Regulations Must Ensure that Every Single Student Matters

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November 11, 2016 01:49 pm


Since President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) almost one year ago, my former colleagues at the U.S. Department of Education (ED) have been working around the clock to develop regulations that will guide the implementation of this vital civil rights law. The fate of these regulations in light of the election is unknown, but what we do know is that ESSA is a bipartisan, critical civil rights law that must be implemented with fidelity to its underlying purpose: to provide all students with an equitable and excellent education.

Within the next few weeks, ED will issue final regulations on accountability, one of the most controversial and consequential elements of ESSA. How ED interprets ESSA, and how states implement ED’s interpretation, will have lasting consequences for states, school districts, educators, and most importantly students. To fulfill ESSA’s legacy as a civil rights law and ensure traditionally underserved students have the opportunity to achieve their full potential, ED’s regulation must not inadvertently require students to fail on multiple accountability indicators to receive the targeted intervention and support they need.

ESSA’s approach to accountability is a course correction after years of onerous and largely ineffective school improvement policies imposed on districts and schools under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NCLB was highly prescriptive, whereas ESSA is largely permissive. But while ESSA’s accountability requirements are few, they are fundamental.

ESSA’s core accountability requirement obligates states to establish a system of “meaningful differentiation” that will provide comprehensive support and improvement to a state’s lowest performing schools. This provision also requires states to provide targeted support and improvement to schools with consistently underperforming subgroups of students. The statute clearly articulates which schools states must identify for comprehensive support; however, it is far less specific regarding which schools states must identify for targeted intervention. To clarify this statutory requirement, ED’s draft regulation proposes several ways in which states may identify schools for targeted intervention. Several of the options outlined by ED allow states to aggregate the performance of student subgroups across multiple areas into a single composite indicator of performance. But one of ED’s options allows states to identify schools for targeted support based on the performance of a single subgroup of students on a single indicator, regardless of how students perform on other accountability measures.

As ED finalizes its accountability regulations, it should maintain this policy. Further, it should apply this principle to each of the options it provides states for defining a consistently underperforming subgroup of students. Doing so is critical to meeting ESSA’s central requirement for creating a system of “meaningful differentiation.”

To satisfy this requirement, and carry out ESSA’s purpose as a civil rights law, a state’s system must differentiate schools in a way that identifies those with low-performing students and ensures that such schools and their students receive additional support. If states identify schools for targeted intervention based only on a composite of indicators, they are more likely inadvertently to overlook low-performing students because high performance on one indicator could mask low performance on another indicator.

For example, in Virginia there are 72 high schools where 80 percent or more of the African American students graduate on time; but in these same schools 60 percent or fewer of the African American students achieve proficiency in math. This represents 22 percent of all high schools in Virginia. In Florida, meanwhile, there are 135 high schools where 80 percent or more of the Latino students graduate within four years, but 60 percent or fewer of the Latino students achieve proficiency in reading. If states aggregate the high school graduation rates, math proficiency rates, and reading proficiency rates together, the high graduation rate will mask the low proficiency rates. As a result, schools with African American and Latino students who are struggling in math and reading may not be identified for support, and the state’s accountability system will not meet ESSA’s core requirement for a system of meaningful differentiation.

Rather than aggregating the performance of student subgroups into a composite, state systems of meaningful differentiation should identify schools for targeted support based on the performance of any single subgroup on any single indicator. Moreover, states can develop such systems while also complying with ESSA’s requirement that states base their system of differentiation on all indicators in the system. They can do this by considering the performance of student subgroups on all indicators when identifying schools and then allowing failure on a single indicator to trigger identification. In other words, any indicator can trigger identification, but students need not fail on all indicators to be identified for support. States, districts, and schools then have the flexibility to determine what interventions to implement.

State systems of differentiation based on a composite of student performance across multiple indicators are mathematically predisposed to overlook low-performing students because high performance on one indicator will mask low performance on another when they are averaged together. If states use a composite of indicators to identify schools for targeted intervention, students may have to fail on virtually every indicator before they receive support. Consequently, ED’s final accountability regulation must ensure that states can identify schools with consistently underperforming students for targeted intervention based on the performance of a single student subgroup on a single indicator. The implementation of this policy will ensure that every single student matters under ESSA and preserve the true intention of the law, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.

Charles Rose is former general counsel at the U.S. Department of Education and a member of the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Board of Directors.

Every Student Succeeds Act

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