It appears that the United States Congress is poised to give state and local education leaders a mighty and surprising gift as 2015 comes to a close – a very long-awaited reauthorized version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA). The new version appears to be one that gives far greater influence to state and local leaders to design and carry out school accountability systems.
(Some background: A conference committee of House and Senate leaders has approved a draft version of a bill to replace the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which has been overdue for reauthorization since 2007. In 2011, given the delay in reauthorizing the law, the U.S. Department of Education began a process to grant waivers from NCLB for state accountability systems – waivers that came with some additional strings attached. Currently, Kentucky’s school accountability system operates under the federal waiver policy.)
The new name of the federal law will be the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Here are a few ways that ESSA will look the same and look different from the world according to NCLB and the slightly different world according to the Department’s waiver policy, and potential implications for Kentucky.
What looks the same, or mostly the same:
- States will test all students each year in grades 3-8, and once in high school, in both reading and mathematics, with testing in science once per grade span.
- A new provision will allow up to seven states to pilot test new kinds of assessments that would then be deployed in districts across the state.
- States will need to report assessment data at the school level as well as for groups of students – by race/ethnicity, income, students with disabilities, and English learners.
- As a departure to the waiver policy, states will not be able to combine groups of students into “super-subgroups” – such as Kentucky’s “Gap Group” – for accountability purposes.
- Similar to the Priority Schools approach in the current waiver policy, states will need to identify the lowest performing five percent of schools based on test results and graduation rates. States also need to identify schools where specific subgroups of students are struggling – similar to today’s Focus School approach.
- At least initially, however, local districts will have greater discretion in how they support these schools.
What looks different:
- States will have greater autonomy to select academic and non-academic indicators in the accountability system. They will need to include proficiency on state assessments, another academic indicator (such as student growth rates), and English language proficiency – and these need to have greatest weight in the system. They will, however, need to include at least one indicator beyond test results, such as student engagement, completion of advanced coursework, post-secondary readiness, etc. High schools will also need to include graduation rates.
- States are pretty much on their own in setting school performance goals based on these indicators. States will need to set goals that call on improvement from all groups of students, but faster progress for students that start out farther behind. This is an important opportunity for state leadership, and a critical area for Kentucky to get right, and with shared ownership and enthusiasm across the Commonwealth among educators, families, policy leaders, and communities for meeting the goals.
- The ESSA draft does not include any federal requirements for teacher evaluation, as in the current waiver policy, or highly-qualified teachers, as in NCLB. As a result, implementation of Kentucky’s Professional Growth and Effectiveness System (PGES), as well as its continuous improvement, will not be affected by federal requirements.
In the next few weeks, Congress is expected to vote on the bill, and the President is expected to sign it by the end of the year. From there, it appears that the current waiver policy – under which Kentucky’s school accountability system falls now – will sunset in August 2016.