Blog: The Educated Reporter

With States at the Wheel, What’s Next for School Accountability?
Issues to watch under ESSA, from report cards to achievement gaps

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act has put states back in the driver’s seat on school accountability.

No longer must states abide by what many perceived as the one-size-fits all federal mandates associated with ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.

But what will this newfound freedom look like? And what should education reporters watch for to ensure states remain focused on closing achievement gaps and parents get an accurate and easy-to-grasp picture of school performance?

Those questions were the focus of two sessions at the 2018 annual conference of the Education Writers Association in Los Angeles last month.

Coming Soon: Revamped Report Cards

Now that most state ESSA plans have been approved – and are in the process of being implemented – it’s important for reporters to dig into how their state will grade or summarize school performance, said Michael Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank. (As of the end of May, all but six states’ ESSA plans had been approved, according to the Education Week ESSA tracker.)

The federal law requires states and local school districts to prepare report cards that provide information on statewide, district, and school performance and progress “in an understandable and uniform format,” according to U.S. Department of Education guidance.

“If you look at your school grades and basically every high poverty school is a D or an F or the equivalent, then you know the state has not done a very good job creating systems that are fair,” said Petrilli, who worked in the U.S. Department of Education under Republican President George W. Bush. “Because every state in the country has at least some high-poverty schools that are doing a great job helping kids make progress from one year to the next, and that should be showing up if they did this right.”

Equally important is whether a school’s grade or rating masks the performance of underperforming subgroups, such as black and Hispanic students, said Lillian Lowery, the vice president for preK-12 policy, research and practice at The Education Trust, a Washington based advocacy group.

“A school that gets a 75 percent in performance looks good, but there may be a gap as wide as 30 or 40 percentage points between majority and minority students,” said Lowery, who previously was the state education chief in Delaware and Maryland. She urged reporters to “dig deeply into all aspects of the data collection.”

Another panelist – North Dakota State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler – said ESSA is giving states leeway to hold themselves accountable in new ways.

For North Dakota, that includes a deeper focus on high schools, she noted. Under No Child Left Behind, Baesler said, there was a strong emphasis on elementary and middle school accountability, given the requirement to assess students annually in grades 3-8 (and once in high school), and to show improvement each year.

“What we realized is our high schools, for lack of a better word, really weren’t being held very accountable at all,” she said. “So this is where they were at in 8th grade, and they were assessed one time in high school and they fell off the ledge. What happened? We weren’t really taking a look at it.”

Now, her state’s accountability system for high schools includes a new indicator called “Choice Ready,” which measures whether graduates are prepared to enter college, the workforce or the military.

“Under ESSA, we’re very, very intentional about making sure our high schools have a larger portion of our accountability and our reporting on that,” said Baesler, a Republican elected state chief..

(Under ESSA, states are still required to test students every year in grades 3-8 in reading and math, and once in high school.)

‘Rubber-Stamping’ State Plans?

Erica Green, who covers federal education policy for The New York Times and moderated the discussion, asked the panelists what role the federal government should play in holding states accountable under ESSA.

Petrilli said the general consensus is “not much.”

He said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has largely been “rubber-stamping” states’ ESSA plans. Petrilli noted – earlier in the discussion – that he expects most states to mostly ignore their ESSA plans now that they’ve been approved.

This strategy, he said, could lead to a backlash.

“If 10 years from now we look back and there hasn’t been a lot of action and achievement gaps have grown and there’s a sense that states have looked away from the needs of the most disadvantaged kids, then I think there will be a lot of pressure again to have more federal involvement and stronger guardrails,” Petrilli said.

That’s something educators are keenly aware of in North Dakota, Baesler said.

“When we drafted our plan and it was approved, I have consistently said to all of my team and the field of superintendents, the district leaders, that if we don’t do well by this, this flexibility will be taken away,” she said.

With the federal government taking a seemingly hands-off approach, it’s important that reporters step up and provide oversight and accountability, Lowery said.

“We need you to be those guardrails that are no longer there at the federal level,” she said.

An ESSA Guide for Reporters

When California released its school dashboard – part of its plan to implement ESSA – in December, it was widely regarded as confusing and nearly unreadable.

And when EdSource Reporter Daniel Willis was tasked with taking the dashboard’s underlying data and presenting it in a digestible way for the public, he knew he had a big challenge on his hands.

So what advice did he have for reporters who may face the same challenge?

Get ahead of the curve by attending or watching the meetings where state education officials design your state’s report card or dashboard, Willis said. Having a basic understanding of your state’s system will pay dividends for reporters who must tackle the story on deadline.

“I really recommend watching those hours of tedious, mind-numbing, horrible meetings just so you can be out in front of some of this stuff before they make a decision,” Willis said.

One of ESSA’s goals is to make school reports cards easily accessible to parents, but it’s worth reporters’ time to investigate whether that’s actually happening, said Carolyn Phenicie, an education reporter at The 74 who moderated the discussion.

Are report cards, for example, accessible on smartphones and other mobile devices, she asked. Are they available in languages other than English, such as Spanish?

“California infamously just ran it through Google translate, which obviously is not a great option,” Phenicie said.

Daarel Burnette II, who covers state education policy for Education Week, said school reports cards will pull together data from an array of sources at the state, local and federal levels.

It’s key that reporters determine whether there’s a common definition for some of the data points being included, such as student suspensions or chronic absenteeism.

“These sorts of decisions are very crucial, they’re very complicated and very politically boring,” Burnette said. “State departments don’t have a lot of political capital so they will dodge the question by burying the data … or basically coming up with a definition that’s so loose that it doesn’t really mean anything.”

Reporters also should keep an eye on how local districts are implementing ESSA, the reporters said.

Unlike NCLB, which mandated specific improvement strategies for chronically low-performing schools, ESSA gives states the opportunity to choose their own school turnaround strategies. And some states are kicking that decision to local districts, Burnette said.

“Look to see if they’re hiring consultants,” he said of local school districts. “If they’re hiring consultants, who are the consultants they’re hiring?”