DeVos's ESSA peer review guidance is a victory for high achievers

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Back in November, I praised the Obama Administration’s Every Student Succeeds Act accountability regulations for permitting states to use performance indices in lieu of simple, problematic proficiency rates. Such applause is, of course, water under the bridge after congressional Republicans and President Trump repealed those rules and, instead of replacing them, will rely on promises, “Dear Colleague” letters, and other means that fall short of formal regulation.

Yet new praise is in order for Secretary DeVos et al.’s recently released “State Plan Peer Review Criteria,” which explains the process through which state ESSA plans will gain approval or rejection. It, like the regulations that came and went before it, expressly permits accountability systems that measure student achievement at multiple levels—not just “proficient”—using a performance index.

This is an important—even essential—innovation. Despite the good intentions of No Child Left Behind, which ESSA replaced a year ago, it erred by encouraging states to focus almost exclusively on helping low-performing students achieve proficiency and graduate from high school. Consequently, many schools ignored pupils who would easily pass state reading and math tests and earn diplomas regardless of what happened in the classroom—a particularly pernicious problem for high-achieving poor and minority children, whose schools generally serve many struggling students. This may be why the United States has seen significant achievement growth and improved graduation rates for its lowest performers over the last twenty years but lesser gains for its middling and top students.

The Every Student Succeeds Act requires the use of an academic achievement indicator that “measures proficiency on the statewide assessments in reading/language arts and mathematics.” There are, however, multiple ways to interpret this. And earlier versions of Department of Education regulations, under President Obama and Secretary King, seemed to expect states to use proficiency rates alone to fulfill this requirement and gauge school performance. Such a mistake would have merely extended NCLB’s aforementioned flaw.

That is why, in myriad reports and letters, we at Fordham and our colleagues in other organizations urged the previous administration to rethink that provision and allow states to rate achievement using a performance index. And it did. They ultimately permitted states to track the percentage of students who attain proficiency, while also giving schools additional credit for getting students to an “advanced” level of performance—such as level four on Smarter Balanced or level five on PARCC—a smart policy for encouraging sustained achievement for high-flying youngsters.

And, fortunately, the new peer review criteria allow this, too. For the academic achievement indicators, it asks, inter alia, “Does the description include how the SEA calculates the indicator, including...if the State uses one, a description of the performance index.”

By gauging the performance of students at three or more achievement levels instead of just one, such models also better inform educators, administrators, policymakers, and parents so they can make sounder choices. Parents of a high achiever can know whether their child’s school is doing well by similarly able students. Teachers and principals can track the effectiveness of their curricula and pedagogical techniques. And state education officials get more complete and nuanced pictures of their schools that better aid their decisions, rules, and regulations.

One of ESSA’s best features is the autonomy it gives back to states, and, much more than the previous administration, the new Education Department is acting in a way that honors the spirit of the law. Yet that also means the burden now truly rests with each and every state to create an accountability system that goes beyond proficiency when measuring pupil and school achievement.

Nine states and the District of Columbia have submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Education to meet their obligations under the Every Student Succeeds Act. By May 3, seven more will likely do the same. Yet in this first batch of seventeen, only six plan to rate schools’ achievement in a way that goes beyond simple proficiency. That’s not enough. If we see a similar pattern with the thirty-four states that submit plans in September, any child already achieving above the proficient line—especially those growing up in poverty—will continue to be an afterthought, a fate no child should suffer. Fortunately, there’s still time in all states, even those that have already submitted plans, to correct their course and ensure that all their students receive the education they deserve.

Brandon L. Wright
Brandon L. Wright is the Editorial Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.