ESSA's Long Game

The largest change in federal policy in 15 years offers new opportunities to use data in the classroom.

by Mark Toner / December 20, 2016
“This is an opportunity for states to put their data to work in the service of student learning,” said Brennan McMahon Parton, associate director of state policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign. David Kidd/Governing

In Steamboat Springs, Colo., collecting data for the dozen-plus reports required by the state is an all-consuming task for one of the 2,500-student school district’s employees. Yet Tim Miles considers himself fortunate.

“We’re lucky that our budget can support that person,” says Miles, technology director for the Steamboat Springs and South Routt school districts. In other small K-12 districts across Colorado, the task of compiling data for reporting purposes often falls on multiple support personnel.

Time-consuming data reporting requirements are a lasting legacy of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which was replaced last year by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). But while the reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) shifts much of the oversight role to states, the one area in which the new law actually increases federal compliance requirements involves data.

“The area of data collection and reporting is probably the least flexible area of the law,” says Maureen Wentworth, director of education data and information systems at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). 

State education agencies are developing formal plans detailing what their accountability systems will look like once the law goes into full effect in 2017. These plans will include how they intend to address ESSA’s data collection and reporting requirements, which consist of new types of data and indicators of student success as well as added transparency, among other changes.

Since NCLB became law in 2002, states and districts have dramatically improved their ability to collect and use data. Many have created sophisticated data warehouses and other supports, and the new law’s requirements “represent the arc of where states have been going in their commitment to transparency and equity,” Wentworth says. However, as is the case in Colorado, the readiness to meet new reporting requirements varies — from state to state and from district to district.  

“There are different roles states have played historically, and there are different challenges,” says Tracy Weeks, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA). 

As state technology leaders develop plans to meet ESSA’s new requirements, experts are urging them to think beyond compliance requirements and identify opportunities to use data in new ways.

“This is an opportunity for states to put their data to work in the service of student learning,” says Brennan McMahon Parton, associate director of state policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign. “To truly be successful and build on efforts made in the past decade, think of this as a long game.”

The past decade and a half of NCLB-era reporting has led states to develop systems and infrastructure for data reporting that will help meet ESSA requirements. “Every state is in good shape to do the basics,” says McMahon Parton. 

Some of the new law’s added requirements include information states already collect, such as post-secondary enrollment, although that information is often out of date and rarely included on state report cards, according to McMahon Parton. Other changes, including breaking down per-pupil expenditures at the school level, will require additional work. And still others, in the spirit of ESSA’s overall vision, put decision-making back in the hands of the state. 

Key ESSA Provisions
ESSA, a bipartisan measure signed into law in December 2015, is intended to address and improve the prescriptive and unworkable requirements of the 2002 NCLB. The following are key ESSA provisions that will help ensure success for students and schools.  
Subgroups. The law requires reporting for new subgroups of vulnerable students, including foster children, homeless students and students from military families. It also does away with the use of “super subgroups,” which combine smaller groups of disadvantaged students for accountability reporting.
School-level data. ESSA requires per-pupil expenditures to be reported for each school.
Long-term English Language Learners (ELL). States and districts will have to identify the number of ELL students who have attended school in the same district for five years without becoming proficient in English.
School climate factors. In response to NCLB-era criticism of a narrow focus on test scores, ESSA adds new in- and out-of-classroom factors such as qualified teachers, attendance and discipline.
Post-secondary enrollment.  For the first time, these statistics will have to be reported on school report cards.
Cross-tabulation. Different types of academic data must be presented in ways in which they can be cross-referenced to identify trends. 
Transparency. ESSA requires more information to be reported on school report cards. 
Data literacy and privacy. ESSA allows states and districts to use federal Title II funds to train educators on how to use and safeguard data.

The new non-academic indicators required by ESSA are prompting states to think creatively about what data they want to include, according to McMahon Parton. Information about chronic absenteeism, for example, is already required for other reporting purposes, and tends to reflect a range of school climate issues, including transportation, health and bullying. Other states are considering developing teacher and student satisfaction surveys to capture additional information about school climate.

States also must think through the capacity of their districts to report the new information. “There’s a wide level of variability across the nation,” says SETDA’s Weeks. Some states have aggregated data in statewide longitudinal data systems, while others rely more heavily on districts to do their own reporting. Some states without longitudinal systems may see the additional reporting requirements as an added incentive to aggregate data, but “I would imagine that some of that variability will continue,” Weeks says.

In Colorado, for example, which relies on districts to report data, larger districts may have a team devoted solely to data reporting. Some, like Miles’ district, have a single staffer. Those that don’t take an all-hands-on-deck approach, leading to potential data quality issues.

“When you look at that data, it’s often not clean because there are so many hands in the pot,” Miles says. “A street name might be in there three or four different ways.”

Helping districts improve their capacity and data quality “remains an ongoing challenge,” McMahon Parton says, “but I know it’s a priority for most states.”

To that end, there’s been an emphasis on creating state or regional support networks for and among districts. “We’re seeing this in everything regarding digital learning,” says SETDA’s Weeks. “More and more, there really is value in being able to collaborate with others.”

In Colorado, regional efforts could address related challenges, such as helping districts comply with privacy regulations, according to Miles, who is also president of the Colorado Association of Leaders in Educational Technology (CALET). Regional partnerships could help small districts receive more competitive pricing for broadband services as well, he says. 

Collaboration also is key at the state level. Some 43 state technology leaders are coming together to share best practices as they work to meet ESSA’s requirements and plan for the future, according to CCSSO’s Wentworth.

“We’re at the beginning of the data use era in education,” she says. “States are thinking long-term about how they and districts can use this data to make programmatic decisions.”

While ESSA’s requirements remain focused on compliance, the new law provides states and districts with added opportunities to put data to use in their classrooms and communities.  “With the new level of authority comes the opportunity to make bold decisions,” SEDTA’s Weeks says.

For example, the new requirement to disaggregate performance for homeless students means that reliable information about these students — which is often tracked more accurately by social service agencies than school districts — can be provided to teachers to help them provide appropriate supports. In similar fashion, information about chronic absenteeism could be used not just for reporting purposes, but also to create early warning systems that signal when individual students are showing early signs of serious problems. Similar systems have already been put into place in Chicago Public Schools and statewide in Massachusetts, California and Virginia. 

“There’s great value in being able to know how each student is growing and how better to support each student,” Weeks says.

Ironically, concerns about the privacy of student data may help states and districts improve the ability of teachers to use it. While it does not contain new privacy regulations, ESSA “signals the importance of keeping data secure and providing services to help districts do that,” says McMahon Parton. Specifically, it allows Title II funding to be used to train teachers and others on how to use data more effectively — and safely. “Teachers are on the front line of data use and meeting concerns about privacy,” McMahon Parton says. 

ESSA’s emphasis on greater transparency in reporting data to parents and the public also opens the door for new opportunities to engage both groups. Many state report cards now include limited measures of student progress, dated information or jargon that makes them difficult for parents to understand.

ESSA encourages states to make data reporting a collaborative effort with parents and others in the community. Some states have already made additional, more actionable information available to parents. The Georgia Department of Education, for example, has launched a statewide parent portal that provides access to assessment data and online resources aligned with state standards, as well as a description of each child’s strengths and weaknesses.

“The law asks states to be thoughtful about engaging parents,” says McMahon Parton. “Congress is saying, go into your communities and ask what they want to know about student success. The long game is that parents have a source of information about student and school progress from the state that they trust.” 

For more details on ESSA, see our ESSA guide.

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