With Every Student Succeeds Act, states must prepare to take on more responsibility for turning around struggling schools

When the Every Student Succeeds Act got signed into law late last year with bipartisan congressional support, many state education leaders were quick to laud its passage and what it would mean for local control over schools.
Phil Pavlov, chair of the Michigan Senate Education Committee, said it opened the possibility for states to set their own policies, “without constant fear of federal intrusion and repercussions.” In Ohio, Sen. Peggy Lehner hailed the start of a new era in U.S. education policy.
“[It] is the most significant education reform bill in the past 14 years,” the chair of the state Senate Education Committee said, and would provide “new tools to advance the education of the children of Ohio.”
But as both Pavlov and Lehner noted, that additional flexibility will come with greater responsibility for states. As the new law begins to be fully implemented, the federal government will take a step back in some key areas of education policy and rely on states to step up.
“That means finding ways to strengthen schools that really need our help,” says Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “Five or seven years from now, it’s going to be really important, for the credibility of states, to show that our lower-performing schools have improved. Congress has trusted the states to get this right, and we have a window to do that.”

Whereas the old federal education law was quite prescriptive on how to turn around schools where student performance lagged, the new one leaves these decisions to states and local school districts. But one primary goal remains the same: making a quality education available to all young people. 

States will set intervention plans
This focus on intervening in low-performing schools is not new; in terms of federal education policy, it dates back much further than even the No Child Left Behind Act. (The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was a civil rights law.)
One important legacy of No Child Left Behind, though, was requiring more accountability and transparency — demanding that states assess students; report the results; measure school performance; and break down performance data for various subgroups of students (for example, the economically disadvantaged and major racial and ethnic groups).
Those parts of NCLB remain intact under the Every Student Succeeds Act; the big changes are in how states can use that information. Under the old federal education law, schools that did not meet “adequate yearly progress” (based on measures such as graduation rates and test scores) had to take a series of steps to improve.
“It was very much one-size-fits-all,” says Laura Pinsonneault, director of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s Office of Educational Accountability. “So for example, every school identified for improvement at level one [due to a lack of “adequate yearly progress”] had to do the same thing. At level two, they had to do the same thing, regardless of the depth of the challenges at each school.”
That is no longer true under the new federal education law.
For starters, the Every Student Succeeds Act creates three distinct categories of schools that require state or local intervention. One category is for schools with graduation rates at or below 67 percent or that are performing in the bottom 5 percent of all schools within the state (based on accountability indicators developed by the state itself). 
For these underperforming schools, each state will approve and then monitor progress being made under locally developed improvement plans. If these schools continue to flounder after four years, the state must intervene in whatever way it sees fit, so long as its strategy is “evidence-based.” That could mean new state policies that help schools recruit effective teachers, or that expand student access to high-quality preschool. Or it could result in states deciding to change the school’s instructional model, replace its staff or convert it to a charter school. 
The decision-making is left to states, and similar flexibility is provided with regard to the two other categories of schools requiring intervention plans. 
The second category is for schools with one or more groups of students (racial or ethnic minorities, for example, or those from low-income families) who are underperforming. These schools are subject to improvement plans created by and overseen by local districts. The third category is for schools with one or more groups of students who are severely underperforming. In these cases, local improvement plans must address “resource inequities” that may be causing gaps in achievement.
States must intervene in some way if schools in this third category fail to improve the performance of their struggling groups of students.
“What Congress tried to do here is give a lot more control back to the states, but at the same time, there are still guardrails,” Minnich says. “For example, states still have to give tests [to students] every year. There also are guardrails that schools be predominantly or significantly evaluated by how those test results are coming back.”
Students in grades three through eight will continue to be assessed annually, through statewide tests that align with challenging academic standards. In assessing high school students, states now have the option of using nationally recognized college-entrance exams such as the ACT or SAT.
One other change in the new law is that the academic standards (determining what students should know and be able to do at different grade levels) should also align with requirements for entering a state’s postsecondary school system.
“The law is very clear,” Minnich adds. “States have the choice to write their own standards.”
Questions remain on accountability
As Pinsonneault explains, Wisconsin and other U.S. states across the country are only at the beginning stages of implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act. One first step for states has been to gather public input on their new plans for holding schools accountable.
“It’s been an opportunity to take a fresh look at our system,” she says. 
At the same time, states have been providing input of their own on federal regulations under the new education law. Wisconsin, for instance, delivered a 14-page response to the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed rules on state accountability and implementation plans. In it, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction raises concerns that those rules, if finalized, would prove to be “overly prescriptive” and “burdensome” — in areas ranging from how a state can calculate graduation rates, to how it tests and scores students, to how it assesses schools on annual report cards.
“The proposed regulations could have a significant impact,” Pinsonneault says. Five years ago, Wisconsin developed a new accountability system, one that moved away from the “adequate yearly progress” model and that reflected the additional flexibility provided to states via federal waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act. 
Wisconsin’s new accountability index uses multiple measures to gauge the performance of a school, including its success in closing achievement gaps, improving student test scores in reading and math, and keeping students on track to graduate and getting them prepared for postsecondary success. Based on these indicators, Wisconsin schools are then placed into one of five categories that determine whether they get rewards for high performance or additional support to address deficiencies in student achievement.
In many ways, this approach seems in line with the goal of Every Student Succeeds — to move away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to evaluating school performance. But the devil could be in the details of the new federal regulations, and whether they conflict with the accountability plans that Wisconsin and other states have put in place with the help of previous federal waivers. 
What states already know is that they must develop new accountability plans and then issue annual report cards on school performance. These plans must include goals for all subgroups of students and use four different indicators for evaluating the performance of schools. States will get leeway in determining those indicators and how much weight is given to each. However, student test scores on statewide assessments and graduation rates must be part of how states evaluate their schools.
These performance measures, in turn, will determine which schools require intervention plans.
“This is a huge opportunity for states to take a lead role in changing the pathway for kids’ lives, for those stuck in low-performing schools,” Minnich says. “What do we do now for the kids who need our help the most?”
Stateline Midwest: August 20162.63 MB