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The good — and bad — news about how some states want to evaluate schools in post-NCLB era

Members of Congress, education leaders and students applaud after then President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act on Dec. 20, 2015. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The U.S. Education Department just announced that plans submitted by 16 states and the District of Columbia showing how they will comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act — the successor law to No Child Left Behind — are now complete and ready for staff and peer review.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has repeatedly said she wants to allow states to make their own education policy, but it remains to be seen whether she will approve all of the plans as they are or whether she will insist that those that do not push for increased school choice modify their plans to do so.

There are other important issues the plans cover as well, including how states will evaluate schools and districts in improving student achievement, and what role standardized testing will play. In this post, Monty Neill, executive director of the nonprofit National Center for Fair and Open Testing, looks at how the plans address testing and accountability. The center, known as FairTest, works to end the abuse and misuse of standardized tests.

Along with the District of Columbia, here are the 16 states that submitted their plans by the spring deadline and will now be reviewed: Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, North Dakota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont.

By Monty Neill

In April, both houses of the Maryland legislature voted unanimously to cap the time students can spend on state and district testing. Legislators also enacted a law, over Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto, to markedly improve the state’s plan for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The new Maryland law prohibits use of an “A-F” school rating scheme. It ensures local educators have at least three years to implement district-determined improvement plans. It also bars privatizing schools identified for improvement under ESSA.    The victories were won by a strong alliance of the Maryland State Educators Association, AFT-Maryland, civil rights, parent and disability groups, working with an increasingly knowledgeable legislature.

The victory shows that organized activists can shape their state plans to comply with ESSA. Unfortunately, the plans thus far submitted for federal approval do not support ESSA’s injunction to ensure every student receives a “well rounded,” “fair, equitable, and high-quality” education.

Seventeen plans have been referred by the Department of Education for peer review and approval; two others are partially submitted. Most states will not submit their ESSA plans until September. That means assessment reform activists still have time to influence them. Even completed plans can be overhauled in the future. The challenge for testing reformers across the nation is how to follow Maryland’s lead in mobilizing the grassroots and building the powerful coalitions needed to win meaningful assessment and accountability reforms.

Among the completed plans, the good news is that many decrease No Child Left Behind (NCLB)-style punishments. Unfortunately, most perpetuate unnecessary school performance rankings. They include far too few non-test-based “school quality” indicators, such as school climate, and give them far too little weight. And most punish schools if many parents refuse testing for their children.

ESSA requires the same amount of testing as did No Child Left Behind, but it removes mandated sanctions for schools. Thus far, few state plans continue NCLB’s required staff firings, school takeovers and privatization. For example, the conservative Thomas B. Fordham  Institute complained that of 17 submitted and nearly completed plans it reviewed, only five explicitly include some scheme for privatizing low-scoring schools.  But it appears that only Maryland has actually barred privatization under ESSA.

Most states rely on the law’s language calling for a needs assessment of low-ranked schools, followed by locally tailored improvement strategies. These potentially helpful actions provide opportunities for districts to drop local standardized testing and promote teacher-driven performance assessing.

This relatively positive news is tempered by the failure of most states to expand how they evaluate schools. ESSA requires states to “meaningfully differentiate” among schools based on the various indicators and to identify the lowest performers. It does not require a formal ranking of all schools. However, according to Education Week, most of the 13 states it reviewed that have submitted plans are using 100-point scales or “A-F” grades to rank schools.

ESSA does not require states to take any punitive action against schools that test fewer than 95 percent of its students. Yet most states have chosen to punish such schools. These states either lower a school’s ranking or count opt outs as a zero test score, which has the same effect. Less punitive state plans require districts to figure out how to improve participation.

Under ESSA, reliance on narrow and misleading test scores to judge schools can now be balanced, up to nearly half the total weight, by school quality indicators. Maryland’s new law requires that school quality indicators be weighted at least 35 percent. That’s the highest thus far in any state plan. (Advocates had fought for school quality indicators to count for 50 percent.) Other states range from a mere 10 percent up to 25 percent.

Moreover, the range of indicators is quite narrow. For example, only Illinois and New Mexico include school climate (as will Maryland). Climate surveys are a tool for understanding student, educator and parent perceptions of a school’s social, cultural and emotional environment. These factors are widely recognized as beneficial in themselves and as significant contributors to academic success.  However, they must be used carefully, such as by barring misuse of the data and not administering student surveys during standardized testing.

Most plans include “chronic absenteeism” or other attendance data as a quality indicator. No doubt absenteeism is a serious problem. But it stems in part from poverty. For instance, students may have to work a paid job or stay home to care for younger siblings. Health issues, including asthma, vision and dental problems, disproportionately afflict children from low-income families. Other commonly chosen indicators, such as participation in Advanced Placement courses, may also reflect community poverty more than school quality.

Racially disparate use of punitive discipline policies, such as suspensions and expulsions, has been shown to contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. The federal government requires states to gather and publicly report data on this topic. Activists pushed states to incorporate school discipline practices as one indicator, but only Tennessee did so.

Groups and individuals seeking to move beyond counterproductive assessment and accountability practices have a ways to go in most states. Maryland shows that significant progress can be won by conducting aggressive public education campaigns and building diverse coalitions with the power to persuade policy makers to adopt genuine reforms.