Where We Go From Here on K-12 Accountability

Monday, December 11, 2017
Ryan Reyna
Senior Director

It’s getting chilly in Washington, D.C., and not just because of the recent snow. Two of the pundits with the biggest social media followings—Rick Hess and Andy Rotherham—traded barbs about whether critiquing states’ ESSA plans provides any value now that they’ve been submitted. While my minimal social media presence (follow me @RyanEReyna) will keep me out of that heavyweight fight, I would like to use my vantage point as both a “doer and talker,” in Hess parlance, to provide some feedback to my former policymaker and state education agency staff colleagues.

Over the last year, I have taken part in three separate processes to review state ESSA plans. As a result, I have had the pleasure—and some would say pain—of reading all 51 submitted plans.

  • Through Higher Ed for Higher Standards, we found nearly all states included strategies to strengthen K-12 and higher education alignment, with 10 states incorporating three or more of the recommended actions.
  • In a partnership with Advance CTE, we found a deep commitment to college- and career-ready accountability measures in Round 1 state plans, yet noted several areas where states could better leverage the ESSA opportunity to strengthen career readiness for all students. Our forthcoming review of Round 2 plans confirms and expands upon those themes—check back on December 14 for that release.
  • Finally, I served as a reviewer in Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success’s “Check State Plans” peer review process. In Round 1, we found a number of promising practices across goals, indicators and methods for identifying schools. On December 12, the peer reviews for Round 2 state plans will be released.

While each of these projects reviewed the state plans from a particular angle, I have not had a chance to offer my broader reflections on where I believe work remains to deliver on the promise of college and career readiness for all students. Luckily, we have some promising examples from state ESSA plans that can be useful reference points for policymakers and practitioners as states turn from planning to implementation.

While each of these projects reviewed the state plans from a particular angle, I have not had a chance to offer my broader reflections on where I believe work remains to deliver on the promise of college and career readiness for all students. Luckily, we have some promising examples from state ESSA plans that can be useful reference points for policymakers and practitioners as states turn from planning to implementation.

Deepen alignment between aspirations, goals and accountability measures

In my view, far too many states made aspirational statements about valuing college and career readiness for all and then did not include any true measures of that readiness in high school accountability ratings. And, despite more than 40 states setting clear benchmarks for postsecondary credential attainment, not even a quarter of the states aligned their K-12 long-term goals with those in higher education, which is a huge missed opportunity for kids.

An aligned system—from aspirations to goals to accountability measures—should be the objective for every state. Two states provide powerful examples of how this can work in practice.

Tennessee’s “Drive to 55” postsecondary attainment goal is the driving force behind the state’s entire ESSA plan. All the state’s strategic goals point toward meeting that vision, even including a goal for the majority of the high school class of 2020 to earn a postsecondary credential or degree. The state recognizes that to reach its goal, it will need to ensure that more students enter postsecondary education prepared to persist and succeed. As a result, Tennessee will hold high schools accountable for students meeting the ACT college readiness benchmark and participating in early postsecondary opportunities, such as dual enrollment and earning an industry certification in an approved program of study. 

Louisiana is updating its accountability system to align expectations for students with its long-term goals. That means schools will receive an “A” rating only when their students are demonstrating “mastery” (i.e., level of college- and career-readiness) on state assessments, graduating greater than 90 percent of their students, and have an average ACT score at the college-ready benchmark (e.g., 21). The state set these long-term goals based on projections for dramatically increasing the postsecondary attainment of Louisiana residents to meet the needs of the economy. And the state’s “ACT Index” and “Strength of Diploma Index” indicators directly connect with its long-term goals for improvement, both in terms of the measures used and the performance expectations for school ratings.

Find the right balance between relative and absolute performance

I have long been an advocate for including a school’s relative performance in accountability systems (see this paper from early 2012). I think it is fantastic that ESSA provided considerable flexibility to include relative measures of performance, such as growth. Yet, in my opinion, too many states took that flexibility to the extreme. A significant number of states proposed to base their entire rating system only on how a school compares to others in the state, without regard for whether schools are meeting high expectations. In this case, states may have lost the trees for the forest. We must continue to be laser-focused on preparing all students for success beyond high school and recognize that schools face different hurdles on their path to realizing that goal.

Massachusetts presents a compelling middle ground that others may want to replicate in the future. The state proposed a two-step process for rating its schools. First, the state will look at a school’s relative performance with all students and in closing gaps for “high needs” students based on a number of factors including average scale scores, academic growth, chronic absenteeism, and success in grade 9 courses. The combined performance on the indicators will place a school into one of six performance levels. Secondly, each school will have increasingly ambitious targets for each measure that, if met, would allow the school to move its overall school rating up one performance level. As the state lays out, “in this way the expectations for performance are clear and known ahead of time for all schools, and performance level designations do not depend solely on the performance of other schools.”

Strengthen support for low-performing schools

By and large, states were not very forthcoming with their approaches to support and/or implement consequences for chronically underperforming schools. ESSA largely devolves turnaround responsibilities to districts, but that does not mean states have no responsibility. Simply providing more general “support” is unlikely to meet the challenges these schools face. While there is no simple solution here, I will be watching New Mexico and New York closely for their responses.

New Mexico is one of the few states that clearly defined what action must be taken in schools that fail to improve within three years after being initially identified for comprehensive support and improvement. Schools must choose between a concrete list of intervention options, or the state department will choose one for it.

New York plans to use a rigorous “inspection” process to compare a school’s practices against a set of research-based “optimal conditions of learning” and make recommendations for improvement. They will also institute a “receivership” program for tougher interventions if a school continues to struggle.

State and national pundits and advocates—myself included—put a lot emphasis on the importance of ESSA plans for laying out the next generation of education reform. States did not always see it that way. And that’s fine. A main objective of the new law was to empower state and local leaders to support student success in whatever way they saw fit. While there may be debates about whether specific aspects of the state plans meet the letter of the law, it is important to remember that the plans are simply that: plans. They represent the minimum floor of state action.

I would hope to see states get more ambitious as they go from plans to action, building high-quality pathways from high school into postsecondary education, standards and assessments aligned with the expectations of entry into college and the workforce, supports for struggling schools that go beyond general assistance, and strategies to help traditionally underperforming student populations close gaps to reach the promise of college and career readiness for all. And I’d like to see states steal innovative strategies from each other and embrace collective action opportunities when joining forces will get them better results. It will be up to local and state practitioners and advocates to ensure that the state is responding to gaps in meaningful ways—regardless of what is in the state’s ESSA plan.

Let’s trust state leadership, verify state actions, and learn from this exercise to ultimately help realize dramatic improvements in students’ preparation for success in college, careers, and life. Hopefully, we can all agree on that.