In the year and a half since the Every Student Succeeds Act was adopted as a replacement for No Child Left Behind, states have pondered how they might use it to measure school success. Here in New York, that vision will become much more clear on Monday when the state is expected to release its draft ESSA plan.
So far, during discussions about ESSA, the Regents have mentioned several big ideas: Boosting diversity, overhauling state assessments, and encouraging advanced curriculum, among others.
Now, finally, those big ideas will be spelled out in practical detail. The Regents may want to measure diversity, but how can they foster it in schools? There may be a desire to revamp state tests, but who will pay for the change?
Though Monday’s draft will not be the state’s final version, it will give the most up-to-date indication of where New York stands.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for:
Will it be a big departure from No Child Left Behind?
In many ways, that is the million dollar question.
While No Child Left Behind was widely criticized for setting rigid and unrealistic expectations, the new federal education law gives states more power to rate and help schools — provided they choose to take it.
The newfound power comes with caveats, most importantly that any rating system still has to focus on student achievement. But the Regents have talked passionately about moving beyond test scores as a way to judge progress and have expressed interest in experimenting with different assessments, such as ones that ask students to complete a series of projects.
“It’s really exciting,” Regent Judith Johnson said. “This is not going to look like No Child Left Behind, but it builds on it in terms of trying to get schools to perform at a higher level for kids.”
Will there be an A-F rating, a dashboard, or both?
When parents want to learn about their child’s school, they might turn to the State Education Department website. Should they be able to see one summative rating, like a letter grade, a dashboard full of different measures, or both? That question has so far gone unanswered in New York.
Letter grades can be controversial. In New York City, when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to simplify school ratings by using letter grades, the system was criticized for being blunt and unreliable; they caused controversy or alterations in other states, too.
Some advocates, including Education Trust, think it is crucial for parents to have a summative rating, so they have a clear and easy way to see if a school is high-quality. (The group has not advocated specifically for an A-F rating.)
Whether or not they use a summative rating, the Regents could also create dashboards with several metrics. Some indicators may be based on performance and used explicitly for accountability, while others may simply provide information. For instance, the state could choose to display per-pupil student funding, which doesn’t work as a school accountability metric because it’s out of a school’s control.
The state has worked extensively with Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the nation’s leading education researchers, who champions a dashboard approach. She explained in an interview with Chalkbeat earlier this year why she thinks the dashboard approach is key and how she thinks it could be a lever for equity.
“I’ve never heard a parent who said, ‘Can you just give my first-grader a single rating and tell me how I rate against the other children in the class with no other details?’ Darling-Hammond said. “It’s not very helpful to move the child forward if you don’t have those specifics.”
Will integration be a part of the plan?
They could ask schools to report a metric that shows the diversity of their school on a dashboard of other metrics, for instance, or encourage schools to use integration strategies as part of a school turnaround strategy.
The details of how this would work are hazy, but any chance to elevate these issues to the state level is welcome news to advocates.
“I’ve been kind of anxious to see what New York state is going to do about it,” said Matt Gonzales, who leads school integration efforts for the nonprofit New York Appleseed. “The fact that they’re at least having discussions about it, for me, I think that’s a good sign.”
Will they make any major changes to state tests?
But their interest waned when they found out the pilot comes with no additional funding, which means overhauling testing would come with a massive bill. The state asked for $8 million from the legislature to pilot project-based assessments this year, but did not get the money.
Regent Judith Chin suggested that any inclusion of newer, innovative assessments in the draft plan would likely be “very targeted” because the state is required to implement this plan in a relatively short period of time.
How will they use test scores?
When U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos bungled a question about the difference between growth and proficiency at her confirmation hearing, the nerdy policy debate that many believe is at the heart of ESSA hit the national stage.
But in New York, it will now move beyond dinner party jokes to a serious issue that New York’s policymakers have to decide. They will need to determine to what extent it should matter if students reach a certain bar, like a third-grade reading level, versus whether students made progress compared to where they started.
No Child Left Behind focused on proficiency. Some say that is an important measure because the ultimate goal is to make every student college- and career-ready by graduation.
But critics say a narrow focus on proficiency leads schools to pay more attention to students close to attaining proficiency and ignore those far behind or far ahead. It can also be unfair for schools that serve high-needs students, since those populations of students often start well below grade-level.
Instead, some experts say, it’s essential to put as much emphasis on growth as possible.
“Historically, we’ve judged schools based on the level that students are achieving at,” said David Griffith, a research and policy associate at the right-learning Fordham Institute. “That’s accountability 1.0 and I think it’s high time to move onto accountability 2.0.”
Other than that, what might be different?
Under ESSA, states get to experiment with a way to judge schools beyond academic achievement and test scores.
Many states, including New York, have been looking at attendance and chronic absenteeism as possible metrics. Based on a draft set of potential indicators released in April, the state is looking at attendance and absenteeism, along with gauges of high school success, such as whether students took advanced classes or CTE coursework. The state will also have to include a metric to judge the progress of English language learners.
That set of potential yardsticks does not seem terribly different from what other states have proposed, said Priscilla Wohlstetter, a professor at Columbia’s Teachers College. If they wanted to truly alter their approach, they might look to a program in California that’s testing students’ social-emotional skills, she said. (It’s worth noting, however, that the woman who has championed the importance of “grit,” says it should not be used as an accountability metric.)
Meanwhile, some teachers are pushing for school climate to be part of the accountability mix. A letter with 479 signatures from Educators for Excellence, a teacher advocacy group, urges the state to consider including school discipline data, chronic absenteeism and school surveys in the plan.
How will they choose to intervene in struggling schools?
The new law also allows states to decide how they want to intervene in schools they determine are struggling.
Compared to the discussion about metrics and test scores, this topic has gotten relatively little attention. Regent Chin said it’s likely the state will propose something that resembles the current receivership model, which means a small number of schools may be taken over by an outside entity if they fail to meet state benchmarks.