Plans for K-12 success: New direction in accountability puts emphasis on student growth, postsecondary readiness, and chronic absenteeism

In the coming years, the Midwest’s legislators are likely to hear much more about and be asked to act on a range of issues surrounding education accountability.
How well are elementary and middle schools doing on our state’s measures of academic growth among all students, at all learning levels? Are our high schools adequately preparing young people for success in college and/or careers? Do our schools provide for a well-rounded education and a climate conducive to learning? How prevalent is chronic absenteeism among our state’s students, and what policies can reduce it? What type of state interventions have helped turn around the lowest-performing schools? These issues aren’t new, and certainly policymakers have tried to tackle them in the past, but they will get even more attention because of the Every Student Succeeds Act and, in particular, new state plans in this region to implement it.
This 2015 federal law (along with some of the waivers granted to states under its federal predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act) has ushered in a new era in the state-federal relationship on education — more flexibility for states, including new options for evaluating schools and intervening in low-performing ones.

“We’re not seeing any cookie-cutter plans,” Abigail Potts, director of college, career and civic readiness for the National Association of State Boards of Education, says about the state ESSA plans, which had to be submitted in September to the U.S. Department of Education. “They’re all pursuing equity and excellence in education, but they all reflect different state priorities and visions.”
There are, however, some notable trends emerging in school accountability across the states. Here is a look at some of them.
The move beyond proficiency
In August, Illinois became the first Midwestern state to have its ESSA plan approved by the U.S. Department of Education. One of the big changes in Illinois will be a shift away from evaluating schools largely on their percentage of students who have reached levels of proficiency (based on their standardized test scores in math and reading).
Instead, for K-8 schools, Illinois will focus more on student progress — comparing test scores from one year to the next to see how much a student has grown academically, regardless of whether he or she has reached proficiency.
Under Illinois’ new accountability system, academic growth will receive more than two times the weight as proficiency: 50 percent of the state’s total evaluation of K-8 school performance vs. the weight of 20 percent given to levels of student proficiency in math and English/language arts.
The Illinois proposal stands out among ESSA plans for how much it stresses academic growth, says Brendan Wright, editorial director of the Fordham Institute. However, he adds that every state will now be using academic growth (to varying degrees) as part of its overall assessment of the performance of elementary and middle schools.
“In the early years of No Child Left Behind, that wasn’t a part of state accountability systems at all,” Wright says. “Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, it wasn’t a requirement. But it’s what states have chosen as another academic indicator [besides the mandate that they still track rates of proficiency].
“That is a huge improvement.”
As a result, schools will get credit when their children make significant academic progress, even if those students haven’t yet reached proficiency. Many states, too, will give schools credit when students move beyond proficiency to higher levels of achievement (“advanced,” for example)
“Before, schools and teachers were incentivized to focus on ‘bubble kids’ — those students just around that line of proficiency,” Wright says. In contrast, many of the new accountability systems will reflect how well schools are helping all levels of learners.
In South Dakota, for example, academic growth will be a stand-alone indicator for evaluating K-8 schools and also will be incorporated into a second indicator — the state’s measure of academic achievement. South Dakota schools will get partial credit for moving students toward proficiency and “bonus” points for getting students to the highest level of achievement.
“Our goal is to recognize schools that help kids along the whole spectrum,” says Laura Schiebe, deputy director of the South Dakota Department of Education.
Focusing on life after high school
Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, high schools have to be measured on indicators such as graduation rates and the proficiency of students on math and English/language arts tests. A “nonacademic indicator” must be used as well, and many states are fulfilling this requirement with a focus on college and career readiness.
As one example, North Dakota has added a “Choice Ready” component to its accountability system. It measures how well each high school has done in preparing students to pursue the option of their choice upon graduation — whether that is college, a career or the military.
For college readiness, this means looking at a combination of grade-point average and ACT scores, as well as participation in Advanced Placement and dual-credit college courses, among other measurements. For career readiness, North Dakota’s indicators include successful participation in a career-and-technical-education field of study, as well as a student’s scores on the WorkKeys assessment, completion of a work-based learning experience, and/or securing an industry credential. For “military ready,” the indicators include levels of physical fitness and an individual’s score on the ASVAB, a test used to predict military success.
In South Dakota, college and career readiness already has made up a significant part of the state’s evaluation of high schools. (That state uses a 100-point School Performance Index, and for high schools, college and career readiness has counted for 30 of those points.)
Now, though, instead of just using assessments such as the ACT, Smarter Balanced or WorkKeys, South Dakota will consider the classes that students take and complete while in high school.
“If kids have taken the equivalent of their freshman year in college while still in high school, regardless of whether they have taken the ACT or not, that’s a good indicator that they are ready for college,” Schiebe says.
“We now give schools credit for it.”
Likewise, schools will be recognized for students’ successful completion of career-and-technical-education courses.
Tracking, counting student attendance
In fulfilling a federal requirement to integrate one quantifiable, nonacademic indicator into their school accountability systems (college and career readiness is one such indicator, but it only applies to high schools), states considered a number of possibilities. One common choice has been to include “chronic absenteeism,” defined by the U.S. Department of Education as missing at least 15 days of school in a year. Students who miss this many school days, the department says, are less likely to reach early learning milestones and more likely to drop out of high school.
“Everybody acknowledges that having kids attend school and being in their seats is important; there isn’t any controversy about that,” Schiebe says.
The debate in South Dakota, and across the country, has been over whether it’s fair to evaluate the quality of a school based on the attendance levels of students.
“How much control do schools have over that?” Schiebe says of the question being asked about that indicator. But for now, student attendance will be used by South Dakota as its sole “nonacademic indicator” of the quality of its K-8 schools. (It is not part of the evaluation of South Dakota’s high schools.)

In future years, Schiebe adds, the state will look to incorporate other measures into that nonacademic/“school quality” indicator. Other states in the Midwest provide examples of what else could be included.
Under Illinois’ ESSA plan, chronic absenteeism is one of several nonacademic indicators used to evaluate school quality. The others include surveys of students about their school’s culture and climate, the percentage of students enrolled in a fine arts class, and the rate of ninth-graders on track to graduate.
Under Iowa’s draft ESSA plan, the results of a Conditions for Learning survey will be a significant part of the state’s overall accountability system. Students, parents and staff participate in this survey, which includes questions about the school’s safety and overall learning environment.
The inclusion of indicators such as chronic absenteeism and school climate reflects one of the big changes in the Every Students Succeeds Act as compared to No Child Left Behind: States are looking beyond just test scores and taking a more holistic approach to their evaluation of schools.
Searching for successful interventions
Under the ESSA, with their new accountability plans and indexes in place, states must then identify schools in need of improvement, namely:
  • schools in the bottom 5 percent of all of the state’s schools in terms of performance (based on the indicators and indexes established by the state itself);
  • high schools with graduation rates of 67 percent or less; and
  • schools where certain subgroups of students (race, gender, socioeconomic status, English language learners, etc.) are performing poorly.
The types of interventions are largely left to states, so long as they are “evidence-based.”
“That is probably our most dramatic change in the [ESSA] plan,” Schiebe says. “Before we had all of these strict [federal] parameters that we had to implement for school improvement. “Now we have more freedom to support the schools in a way that makes sense. We’re very excited about it, but also nervous. How do we shape these interventions and make them work?”
An evidence-based strategy that works in an inner-city school, she notes, might not apply to some of South Dakota’s traditionally lower-performing schools.
“We’re talking about schools in extremely rural, extremely impoverished areas,” Schiebe says.
Illinois and Michigan provide two examples of the frameworks that states could use to help turn schools around. Under IL-EMPOWER, Illinois provides schools with additional resources (including assistance from outside, state-approved “professional learning partners”) to improve student performance. The plan for each school focuses on meeting the needs of the “whole child” (cognitive, social and emotional development), starting with an analysis and identification of the barriers to academic achievement.
“ESSA provides for a really robust needs assessment, where you have time to find the root causes [of low achievement or performance in a school],” Potts says.
In Illinois, once those root causes are identified, improvement plans for each school are implemented, and additional state resources are provided.
Michigan already has begun to use a “partnership model” for its low-performing/high-needs schools. The state provides support to local school districts as they create a plan to improve student outcomes. Academic success is the primary focus, but as in Illinois, Michigan’s model also emphasizes the need to address the needs of the “whole child” — health, nutrition, behavior and social/emotional development.


Midwestern states’ vision for evaluating school performance

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must include a mix of academic and nonacademic indicators in their accountability systems for K-12 schools (see page 6 story for details). Certain indicators are required: the percentage of students who have reached proficiency in English/language arts and math (based on standardized test scores); the progress of English-language learners in reaching proficiency; and, for high schools, the graduation rates of students.
Beyond these requirements, states have flexibility to establish their own indicators. In the Midwest, every state has included the academic growth of students (as measured on standardized tests) in its evaluation of elementary and middle schools. At least six states in this region — Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota and Ohio — also plan to incorporate academic growth/progress into their accountability systems for high schools. Kansas and Ohio have made the closing of achievement gaps another stand-alone measure for evaluating the performance of schools.
Even more variation can be found in how states plan to meet the federal requirement for a nonacademic indicator — a measurement of “school quality” or “student success” (see table). In the Midwest, most states have chosen to focus in part on student attendance and chronic absenteeism, as well as how well high schools are preparing young people for life after high school.
As part of their nonacademic indicators, some states also plan to survey students about their school’s climate, give schools credit for providing a well-rounded education, evaluate discipline policies, and track the rate of ninth-graders on track to graduate.

Stateline Midwest: September 20172.21 MB