How Will the New Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Impact Teachers and Schools?

Fifty states are deeply involved in creating accountability plans required by the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): what does it mean for teachers and schools?

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and ESSA both require that states test all students in grades 3-8, identify the lowest achieving schools, establish intervention strategies and NCLB required either transforming, redesigning, closing or converting the lowest achieving schools to charter; ESSA gives states wide latitude in designing intervention strategies.

Under the new law, ESSA, states can use the PARCC, Smarter Balance or a test designed or purchased by states for accountability purposes.  A few states are exploring alternatives: performance tasks or other authentic assessments, perhaps portfolios of student work. No matter the assessment tool the process will identify the bottom five percent and each state must determine an intervention strategy.

Let me repeat – there will always be a bottom five percent; states decide the process that identifies the bottom five percent.  There are 4400 schools in New York State; five percent equals 220 schools that will end up in the bottom five percent. (Actually high schools use a different metric: schools in which a third of students fail to graduate and in the following year schools in which subgroups underperform).

The determination of the bottom five percent is currently based on proficiency, aka, test scores. In the scholarly circles the debate has centered around “proficiency” versus “growth.”

Andrew Ho and colleagues have been sharply critical of proficiency as the sole assessment tool.

Leah Schafer, in When Proficient Isn’t Good: The Deceptive Nature of Proficiency as a Measure of Student Progress – and How to Fix the Funhouse Mirror, summarizes Ho’s position,

First, he says, “these initial proficiency markers are arbitrary, determined by an overwrought, judgmental, and ultimately political process.” The setting of a cut score is ultimately a judgement, as Ho so accurately puts it, “ultimately a political process.” In New York State the Common Core test cut scores that caused the outcry and created the opt-out movement and resulted in the demise of John King was a political decision and, different states set cut scores that vary significantly from state to state.

Aside from distorting comparisons between states, percent proficient can distort perceptions of growth within a state, or district, or classroom. High income suburban schools will all have scores above proficient while high poverty schools will almost always have scores below proficient regardless of the efforts of staffs and districts.

The third problem, Ho explains, raises concerns about achievement gaps — for example, average differences between test scores of white or higher-income students and minority or poor students. When comparing two groups of students, whichever group has percentages closer to 50 percent will appear to progress or regress faster, leading to assumptions about changes in the achievement gap that are incorrect — another illusion.

I urge you to take a deep dive into “A Practitioner’s Guide to Growth Models, (February, 2013), Katherine E. Castellano and Andrew D. Ho, for The Council of Chief State School Officers.

We will probably end up with a combination of proficiency and growth. Some argue, a “growth to proficiency” model – perhaps something like 85% proficiency/15% growth while others argue the opposite 85% growth/15% proficiency. Under the current proficiency model just about all the five percent schools are in the highest poverty zip codes in the state – the “Big Five” (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, New York City and Yonkers).  Some sort of a combination proficiency-growth model will produce a very different mix of schools; needless to say a potentially hot political topic.

The state plan will be released in the spring, a comment period, final approval in time to submit by the July deadline.

The second part of the plan is the “wide discretion” section – what to do to raise achievement levels in the schools.  The September 28th edition of Education Week takes an in depth look at the options available to states (Check out here)  For example, a school district in Indiana has a “transformation zone;” the California Department of Education spun off California Collaboration for Educational Excellence, with a budget of $24 million to assist low performing schools and districts. A number of organizations, for example Mass Insight and the Johns Hopkins Talent Development Model have had considerable success in school turnaround endeavors.

While the state has wide latitude these efforts must be “evidence-based,”

ESSA lays out three levels of evidence that states can choose to apply to prove an intervention works:

  • “Strong evidence” includes at least one well-designed and implemented experimental study, meaning a randomized controlled trial.
  • “Moderate evidence” includes at least one well-designed and implemented quasi-experimental study. For example, a program evaluation could use a regression-discontinuity analysis, in which researchers might look at differences in outcomes for students who scored a point above and below the entrance cutoff score for a particular program or intervention.
  • “Promising evidence” includes at least one well-designed and implemented correlational study that controls for selection bias, the potential differences between the types of students who choose to participate in a particular program and those who don’t.

In the “strong evidence” category there aren’t too many choices for elementary schools; Success for All and Reading Recovery are two that do meet the requirements, they are expensive, and, highly structured.

“This is a sea change from the highly prescriptive approach to school improvement [under the No Child Left Behind Act] to what can seem like a bit of a Wild West structure under ESSA,” said Mike Magee, the chief executive officer of Chiefs for Change, which has created an ESSA working group of 15 experimentally minded state education leaders. “We have potentially unprecedented flexibility in how states address school improvement—but that’s just another factor in how high the stakes are.”

Another cluster of states are working with Linda Darling-Hammond and others have employed companies that specialize in these efforts, for example 2Revolutions, that calls themselves an education design lab. To the best of my knowledge New York State, for now, is going it alone.

Of course there is an “event” on November 7th that may influence education policy; a new president, a new Secretary of Education, and, perhaps, a new Congress. ESSA will not evaporate, it took fourteen years to change NCLB under two presidents from different parties, and, I believe we will have to wait and see how the law plays out.

Bottom line: a more interesting mix of “five percent” schools and a variety, a wide variety of approaches to school improvement and the impact of the new law on teachers and schools a year or two years away.

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