ESSA and Equity

Tennessee’s plan to ensure schools help students of all races raises red flags for advocates and feds alike

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

An unusual way that Tennessee wants to hold schools accountable for helping all students is drawing the same reaction from groups that ordinarily agree on little: skepticism.

Both U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and local advocates for students of color say they have concerns about the state’s proposal for measuring whether schools are helping students of all races.

Under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must promise to intervene in low-performing schools — and they must show how the performance of various “subgroups” influences their decision making. The goal is to make sure that a majority-white school with low-performing black students, for example, does not escape the state’s scrutiny.

Tennessee is the only state to propose lumping several subgroups — black, Hispanic, and Native American students — together into a single “supergroup” when assessing schools. All of the other states that have submitted their plans to comply with the law say they will look at each group individually.

Tennessee is also the only state to propose not stepping in at a school unless at least 30 students who are poor, non-white, or have a disability are low-performing. Other states set a lower threshold in each category. (Michigan is using the 30-student threshold in some categories but not others.)

State education officials say the approach — which Tennessee used recently under a waiver from the previous education law — makes sense because in schools where black students are doing well, Hispanic students, for example, are also very likely to be doing well, too.

They also point out that the current accountability system has excluded tens of thousands of students whose schools are so racially segregated that subgroups are too small to be measured. More than 40,000 additional students would factor into the state’s accountability system under the proposal, according to state officials, who note that the larger threshold for each school would prevent situations where a tiny number of struggling students could trigger disruptive consequences for an entire school that is otherwise doing well.

PHOTO: Philip Murphy/Conexión Américas
Mary Batiwalla, executive director of accountability for the Tennessee Department of Education.

“These are really high-stakes decisions,” said Mary Batiwalla, the state department’s executive director of accountability. “The more steps you throw into your system, the more subgroups you look at, the more volatile the data could be. And the likelihood for error from random chance increases. We want to feel certain when we make these decisions.”

But critics of the approach say lumping students from different groups together could make it easy to miss nuances in how to better educate each of those racial and ethnic subgroups.

“They are not the same population just because they are being underserved,” Emily Philippone, an ESL teacher at Sheffield High School in Memphis, said at a recent training session for Memphis educators and advocates hosted by the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition. “We need to look to see what individual needs those students have.”

Others have raised similar concerns. A group that favors tough accountability for schools gave Tennessee’s plan strong marks — except when it came to the subgroup issue. The Campaign for School Equity, a school choice advocacy group in Memphis, made the same point in its first report this week. And Conexión Américas, a group that lobbies for immigrant students in Tennessee, is pushing for a different approach.

It appears that the critics have an ally in DeVos, who is responsible for approving states’ accountability plans. She has said she will approve any plan that complies with the law — and feedback from her department suggests that Tennessee’s does not.

“It is not clear whether each of the individual racial and ethnic subgroup of students is also separately included in the state’s accountability system,” education department officials wrote in their response to Tennessee’s proposal. The law “requires a state to include in its accountability system each major racial and ethnic group as well as the subgroups of economically disadvantaged students, children with disabilities, and English learners.”

PHOTO: PhilipMurphy/Conexión Américas
Gini Pupo-Walker, Conexión Américas’ senior director of education policy

Tennessee officials did not change their approach when they resubmitted their proposal in mid-July. But they did explain that they plan to analyze the performance of each group and use a smaller student threshold in its annual school report cards, which are meant to inform people in the state.

That’s a good step, according to some advocates, but not enough to ensure that vulnerable students are adequately served by their schools.

“There’s no immediate behavioral changes based on what comes out of reporting,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, Conexión Américas’ senior director of education policy. “I don’t think schools are going to realign resources from information coming out of reporting. They will for accountability.”

Every Student Succeeds Act

Indiana is working on a plan to make sure every school — not just white, affluent ones — has high-quality teachers

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Kathleen Cucci reads aloud to her students during group time.

Even though several years of teacher evaluation data have shown the vast majority of Indiana teachers are highly rated, poor students and students of color are still more likely to have ineffective, inexperienced teachers than their peers.

Indiana is examining how teachers are divided up among schools as part of its work on a new education plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The new law focuses more on on equity and inclusivity, something civil rights advocates and state officials have praised.

“We have a lot of kids in Indiana who don’t have access to quality teachers,” said Indiana State Board of Education member David Freitas. “ESSA says we have to specifically address that.”

According to the state’s education plan, poor students and students of color in Title I schools (those that receive extra federal aid based on rates of poverty) are more likely than their affluent, white peers to have teachers who are ineffective, inexperienced and don’t meet Indiana certification requirements.

Here’s how the data breaks down.

  • Poor students are 3.7 times more likely to have ineffective teachers; Students of color are 8.5 times more likely;
  • Both poor students and students of color are slightly more likely to have teachers who don’t meet certification requirements;
  • Poor students are 1.54 times more likely to have inexperienced teachers; Students of color are 1.63 times more likely;
  • Both poor students and students of color are slightly less likely to have highly effective or effective teachers.

Despite the relative differences in teacher experience and quality in the list above, it’s worth noting that 88 percent of Indiana’s 68,386 teachers were rated “effective” or “highly effective” in 2015 (the most recent data available), with just 0.38 percent rated “ineffective.”

State officials said there could be many reasons why low-rated teachers tend to be more present in high-poverty, predominantly non-white schools. Those schools might not be able to pay teachers as much or offer them as much support, making it harder to attract more experienced educators.

But groups of educators, policymakers and community members who worked with state officials to draft the plan focused on issues of training and support, leading the state to develop a number of strategies to pursue going forward that could help keep good teachers in the classroom. Those strategies could include extending student teaching, overhauling performance evaluations to focus more on improvement rather than simple ratings and helping districts access funding to improve ongoing teacher training.

This struggle is not new to Indiana — teacher-related discussions for the past several years have focused on recruiting and retaining teachers. So far, legislative progress has been slow. Some bills championing prospective teacher scholarships and mentoring programs have won approval, but they have received relatively small amounts of funding, if any.

By 2023, Indiana education officials have a goal to cut the inequitable rates of teacher experience and quality in half.

The Indiana Department of Education submitted the ESSA plan to Gov. Eric Holcomb earlier this week. He can choose whether to lend his support. Either way, it is due to federal officials in September.

This story has been corrected to better reflect Holcomb’s role in the state ESSA plan. 

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Feds to Colorado: You must count students who opt out of standardized tests

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s policy of not penalizing schools that fail to meet federal requirements for student participation in state tests isn’t going over well with the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education told state officials in a letter Friday that the policy is not acceptable. Colorado faces losing millions in federal funding if it doesn’t change course.

Federal officials flagged the opt-out policy in a response to the state’s plan to comply with the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The federal government’s feedback to states is being closely watched for signs of how the department, under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, enforces a law that was meant to shift more decision-making away from the federal government and back to states.

“It didn’t come as a surprise,” Pat Chapman, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director of federal programs, said of the feedback. “There’s a need to reconcile state board, state legislature and federal requirements and policies.”

In 2015, Colorado became a national epicenter for the testing opt-out movement, with thousands of students refusing to take state-required tests they didn’t see as valuable.

The State Board of Education, reasoning that it wasn’t fair to punish schools for something not in their control, adopted a policy forbidding the state education department from lowering schools’ quality ratings or otherwise punishing them for high refusal rates.

Previously, schools and districts could have seen their quality ratings lowered if they failed to annually test 95 percent of students in math and English. Schools that receive the state’s lowest quality ratings for five consecutive years face state intervention.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes is expected to brief the state board at its regularly scheduled meeting this week on possible responses. The state has until Aug. 24 to submit a revised state plan or ask for an extension.

State board Chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said Monday she doesn’t expect the board to take any formal action on rethinking the board’s policy this week. She declined to elaborate further.

“The board should have an opportunity to talk about this before I publicly comment,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican who championed the policy, also held back Monday.

“I’m not sure what all the options available are,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what the staff’s analysis is and go from there.”

The state’s unique opt-out policy wasn’t the federal government’s only criticism.

The U.S. Department of Education also raised concern about the state’s long-term academic goals, using an average of test scores to determine school quality and monitoring how well students are learning English as a second language.

The federal department is asking the state to resubmit long-term academic goals for particular student groups, including different ethnic groups and students with disabilities.

In the current version of the plan, all student groups are expected to have the same average test score in six years, which is slightly higher than the state’s current average. The goals seem confusing and unattainable. For example, students with disabilities would need to make unprecedented progress, while Asian students would need to lose academic ground in order for the state to meet its targets.

As part of its plan, Colorado also proposed rating schools based on averages from English and math test scores, not how many students met grade-level proficiency as it did in the past.

While the use of average test scores was applauded by some, it isn’t flying with the federal education department. It wants Colorado to better explain how using average scores relates to measuring whether students are at grade level.

Moreover, U.S. officials want an assurance from Colorado that students who are far above grade-level won’t “overcompensate” for students who are not proficient. In other words, the department wants to make sure high-performers aren’t masking serious problems.

Dale Chu, vice president of policy and operations for America Succeeds, a nonprofit of business leaders that support education reform, helped a coalition of education groups review state plans independently of U.S. education department. The group, the Collaborative For Student Success, was critical of Colorado’s switch to using an average of test scores.

“There’s no sense of proficiency,” he said. “There has to be some sort of sense that kids are coming out school being able to read and compute and be on a successful path.”

Finally, the U.S. education department is also seeking more clarity on how the state is tracking the progress of students learning English as a second language. It said the state needs to provide a clear timeline on when it can provide specific goals and more detail about how the state will use data to determine school quality.

Chapman said the state education department did not have the data available to provide the federal government the information it needed. However, that’s changing and he expects that portion of the plan to be accepted.

The Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. The law required states to develop plans to outline how it would use federal dollars to improve schools, teacher quality and boost language proficiency for students learning English as a second language.

Pushback from the U.S. education department to states has been more stern than many education policy observers expected given DeVos’s support of school choice and local control.

Chapman said the federal department has been helpful.

“They’re asked to uphold the letter of the law, he said. “I do think they’re approaching it in anyway that they’re being helpful to states to write a plan that’s consistent with statue.”