Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Virginia’s state superintendent of education, Steven Staples. The story has been updated.
With the passage of a federal education law that returns a significant amount of authority to the states, lawmakers and state school officials across the country are readying for an opportunity to reshape local education policies without the onerous requirements of No Child Left Behind.
Signed into law last month, the Every Student Succeeds Act puts strict limits on federal influence in schools, giving states more say over how they evaluate teachers and over academic standards. States will look to build their own systems for measuring whether schools are effective — and will decide what to do when they’re not.
The new law not only gives states the flexibility they sought after laboring under the strictures set by No Child Left Behind but also an opportunity to build academic standards and accountability systems from scratch. With that freedom, some states may choose to depart from the course set by the Obama administration.
In Virginia, Maryland and the District, state and local officials will be charged with developing their own systems of assessing schools and developing guidelines for what to do when schools fail. As state officials await regulations that will provide more guidance about how the new law will be implemented, it’s still not clear how those systems will shape up.
All three jurisdictions were waived out of the most onerous requirements of No Child Left Behind and, in exchange, they adopted reforms favored by the Obama administration, such as using student test scores to evaluate teachers. Those waivers are set to expire Aug. 1, but ESSA is not expected to be fully implemented until the start of the school year in 2017.
State officials say they are embracing the new role and are excited to move past federal rules that prescribed a limited set of solutions for schools that fell behind. In all states and the District, schools that fail to meet benchmarks no longer will have to ascribe to the federal Education Department’s turnaround program, which forced many schools to fire teachers and principals for a fresh start.
“I don’t think any state is totally satisfied with what they have in their accountability system because it was driven by a negotiation with the federal government,” said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “They’re excited to take a look with fresh eyes with the best information we can get on how schools are doing.”
Virginia’s largest high school, T.C. Williams in Alexandria, just emerged from a federally mandated turnaround program that required it to replace its principal and submit to a host of instructional changes.
While those efforts might have made a difference there, Steven Staples, the state superintendent of education, said the federal mandates applied a one-size-fits-all approach to schools that faced radically different challenges.
In a state such as Virginia, with wide disparities between wealthy suburban districts and poor rural ones, it was impractical to have such a limited set of options to deal with schools the federal system labeled as low-achieving and in need of intervention, he said.
“A school that is struggling in an urban setting may look and need different interventions than a school that is struggling in a rural setting,” Staples said.
Anne Holton, Virginia’s secretary of education, said she is excited to develop a system better suited for the state’s schools, perhaps allowing local school boards to choose their own methods of intervening when schools fail to meet benchmarks. Under the new law, money that was used for federally required interventions will be available for states to use how they see fit.
With fewer restrictions on testing, for example, Virginia also could pursue an adaptive testing model that would allow students at all grade levels to take standardized tests that self-adjust as students answer questions correctly or incorrectly, Holton said. It would eventually allow a fifth-grader who is way behind on math to take a fourth-grade math test that would better gauge knowledge and progress.
“It will be much more instructionally useful information,” Holton said.
Virginia also plans to go from two parallel and occasionally overlapping accountability systems to one, which means less paperwork and fewer bureaucratic headaches. The new accountability system will scrutinize how schools educate sub-groups of students — such as black and Hispanic students and students who speak English as a second language — to help close achievement gaps.
Maryland officials have not made decisions about how the new law might lead to changes in its school accountability system, which has focused on three areas: overall student achievement, growth and closing the achievement gap.
Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said department staff and the Maryland State Board of Education are reviewing the law and are discussing next steps.
“Maryland will look toward the 2016-2017 school year to update its school accountability system,” he said.
The Maryland legislature created a commission last year to study the testing burden on students, a concern raised by parents, educators and elected officials.
The Office of the State Superintendent of Education will be charged with preparing the District’s accountability system, but Deputy Chief of Staff Jessie Harteis said the office will be getting input from a broad spectrum of people before moving forward.
“We’re excited to work with our education stakeholders to develop a plan that is meaningful in the District,” Harteis said.