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ESSA and Accountability: Proposed Rules Aim to Walk Fine Line

There has been significant uncertainty over how the Every Student Succeeds Act accountability regulations being crafted by the U.S. Department of Education would work, and to what extent they would reinforce or depart from what many saw as ESSA's intent of taking more policy decisions out of Washington.

(TNS) -- In their proposed rules on school accountability, federal officials are attempting to walk a fine and aggressively scrutinized line.

They say they've tried to offer the meaningful flexibility to states and districts under the Every Student Succeeds Act that many say the law requires, while answering the call to make sure that all students are accounted for and given appropriate, equitable support.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether a variety of others—such as Republican members of Congress and civil rights advocates—will be satisfied with the U.S. Department of Education's foray into crafting accountability regulations for the successor to the No Child Left Behind Act.

The draft rules, issued May 26, would not impose specific, statistical requirements for how much various indicators would count toward accountability.

Districts would have the freedom to decide on their own school turnaround plans. States could set their own academic goals, and measures of interim progress. And states would get significant flexibility in defining what it means for certain groups of students to be "consistently underperforming."

However, states do have to disaggregate all indicators by all student subgroups for accountability. And for picking out which schools need interventions, not all indicators are created equal.

One potential point of conflict could be the requirement in the rule that states publish a single, summative rating for schools in accountability systems.

Although that rule could have strong backing in Congress and elsewhere, others might be concerned it could also damage a budding trend in states and districts to use accountability systems that don't necessarily produce one comprehensive rating, and therefore a statewide rank, for each school.

Another possible flashpoint could be test participation.

The department's desire in the draft ESSA rules to closely control how states deal with relatively high testing opt-out rates could reignite concerns and even anger about the place of standardized exams in schools.

Creativity and Equity

When it was signed by President Barack Obama last December, ESSA shifted more control over things like school turnarounds and academic goals to state and local officials.

But in the subsequent months, there has been significant uncertainty over how ESSA accountability regulations being crafted by the department would work, and to what extent they would reinforce or depart from what many saw as ESSA's intent of taking more policy decisions out of Washington.

Now, some could see these draft accountability rules as less aggressive in some respects than separate ESSA spending rules the department is widely expected to propose. The latter would govern the part of the law requiring federal aid to poor students to supplement state and local aid.

The draft accountability regulations were slated to be published in the Federal Register on May 31. Once they are, there will be a 60-day period during which the public can comment on the proposed rules. That period is scheduled to close Aug. 1.

When he discussed the rules last week, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. stressed that the new law presented the chance for states to be creative, even as he stressed the importance that they look out for all students and work toward educational equity.

And his department has been careful, he said, to ensure the draft rules are "consistent with the law."

"States now have an opportunity to use really thoughtful, evidence-based interventions," he said in a meeting with reporters at J.C. Nalle Elementary School in Washington, adding his hope that, "We're also going to see robust, state-level conversations."

Drawing on Public Input

States would have until March 2017 or July 2017 to submit their accountability progress, depending on their progress beforehand, the proposed regulations state.

The draft rules draw on input from more than 100 meetings around the country with advocates, educators, and community members, and further feedback on the draft rules will also be key, said Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, in a meeting with reporters at J.C. Nalle Elementary.

She acknowledged the new discretion and opportunities states and districts will have under the law.

"We're trying to balance that flexibility with strong civil rights guardrails," Muñoz said.

The summative ratings required in the rules are one such attempt to provide clear and actionable data for parents, educators and others.

But the categories of performance levels for schools, and what they would be called, would be left up to states.

And just because the draft ESSA rules don't prescribe or suggest specific weights for indicators, that doesn't mean they're all created equal.

Taken together, academic indicators would have to account for a much greater part of a school's overall rating than the school quality and student success indicators, which can consist of factors like school climate and student engagement.

Turning Things Around

And academic indicators also carry more weight for school interventions. That's because however well schools are doing with school quality and student success indicators, those alone won't prevent interventions designed to help struggling students.

Specifically, the rules state a school could not be removed from the list of those needing comprehensive or targeted support simply through strong performance on its school quality or student success measures. Such a school would have to be making sufficient progress on at least one other academic indicator in order to have either of those two labels removed.

But other, related requirements are not so strict. In fact, the draft rules' suggestions for how to define students who consistently underperform are troubling because only one of them puts a priority on students' progress toward interim and long-term academic goals, said Daria Hall, the vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, a civil rights advocacy group.

"At its heart, this law and these accountability systems are about ensuring support for any group of students that is not making progress," Hall said.

But Hall stressed that she was pleased with other aspects of the law, such as how student access to advanced coursework and success in those courses would have to be measured, not just how many advanced classes schools offered.

School turnaround models would have to be developed with parents, educators, and others. And they would have to include information about available resources, such as per-pupil spending and any disproportionate access to inexperienced teachers or those teaching out of field.

For the first time under federal law, ESSA requires states to include English-language proficiency as part of their state accountability plans. The rules would require states to take into account diverse English-learner populations and students' initial level of English proficiency, before setting goals and determining what kind of progress these students were making.

And after more than a year of controversy over relatively high testing opt-out numbers in several states, the states would be required to increase test participation, although they'd get several choices for how to approach the matter.

Still, that approach drew a sharp denunciation from the American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. She said in a statement that, "It simply inflames the problem by suggesting punitive consequences for those who are so frustrated by the misuse and high-stakes nature of standardized testing that they want to opt their kids out." (Under ESSA, states are still allowed to pass their own laws allowing parents to opt their children out of state exams.)

Transparency, data, and resource equity are also stressed in the draft rules.

States would have to craft school report cards in consultation with parents. And they would have to include a "full set of accountability information," including test scores and graduation rates, and a "clearly labeled overview section that is prominently displayed," the proposed rules say.

And in keeping with the department's emphasis on resources and other matters of equity, they'd also have to include information on issues ranging from per-pupil expenditures and access to preschool to school discipline information.

Reactions Vary

Advocates with different perspectives also weighed in.

Several were positive and optimistic. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, said the proposed rules "fulfill the federal obligation to protect and promote equity, ensuring that ESSA implementation will uphold the civil rights legacy of the law."

And the Council of Chief State School Officers indicated it was generally pleased with the department's proposals, saying in a statement, "The department has balanced the need for clarity and the clear intent of the law for flexibility for states."

When considering the draft rules, it's important to keep in mind the letter of the law as well as the spirit behind ESSA, said Noelle Ellerson, the associate executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

"The regulations are not as bad as they could have been. But just because they're not as bad doesn't make them good," Ellerson said, adding that what Congress deliberately left out of ESSA's language should be just as important as what it deliberately put into the law.

But there were also early signs of opposition, along with hints of where the proposed regulations may run into trouble.

"I am disappointed that the draft regulation seems to include provisions that the Congress considered—and expressly rejected," Alexander, the Senate education committee chairman, said in a statement. He did not give an example of such overreach, but said he's going to give the proposed rules further review.

Speaking with King at the Washington elementary school last week, Kristen Amundson, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, expressed her concern about the rules' requirements for summative ratings in particular.

And Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, said he will "fully review" the proposal, and that if it doesn't match "the letter and intent of the law," he will use "every available tool" to make sure the law is implemented as Congress intended.

©2016 Education Week (Bethesda, Md.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.