Goldilocks and the "ambitious" ESSA goals

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By Ryan Reyna

Once upon a time there was a new Secretary of Education who was charged with providing states flexibility to meet their education goals through the Every Student Succeeds Act. Upon review of the first plan, she declared “these long-term goals are not ambitious enough,” so she read the next plan. “These goals may be too ambitious,” she stated about the second. Then she read the third plan. “These goals make sense,” she happily declared and recommended approval without haste.

If only this story was merely a fairy tale. Unfortunately, our reality is almost strange as fiction. As Michael Petrilli eloquently argued in his recent commentary, Secretary DeVos and her team stumbled out of the gate with respect to their initial review of the Delaware, Nevada, and New Mexico state plans. Each received feedback on their submitted ESSA plans on areas to improve—as to be expected—but the responses to state’s proposed long-term goals were anything but expected.

The Department suggested that Delaware’s goal to decrease by 50 percent the number of non-proficient students in each subgroup within twelve years did not meet the statute’s threshold for “ambitious.” Peer reviewers found Nevada’s goals to be “very ambitious,” as it sought to be the “fastest growing state” in the nation in student achievement. Among their goals: an annual 5 percent reduction in non-proficient students over six years, or half the expected improvement as Delaware in half the time. New Mexico also received praise for the ambition of its goals. The state plans to improve from 27.8 percent to 64.9 percent proficient over six years—or stated differently, to reduce by half the number of non-proficient students in in that timeline.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the reviewers’ evaluation, the problem is that there is no internal consistency about the standard states must meet. And that leaves states—both Round One states and those yet to submit—in the lurch.

The ESSA statute reads that states shall “establish ambitious State-designed long-term goals.” One may presume that to mean states have broad authority in that respect, but without regulations there is clearly space for interpretation. According to the Department’s FAQ, “In cases where the statute does not define a specific term, a State has significant discretion to determine how it will define that term. In accordance with the Secretary’s responsibility to review State plans, the Secretary is obligated to make a determination as to whether a State’s proposed definition, on its face, is reasonable.”

So, if there is no clear definition in the law and the Secretary will make decisions about the “reasonable” level of ambition on a case-by-case basis, then what are states to do? Here are four steps that states should take to meet the “ambition threshold,” based on goal setting research and the initial round of feedback.

Provide data on past performance. Having reviewed all of the Round One ESSA plans and participated in the Bellwether ESSA plan review process, I can attest to the difficulty of judging whether the proposed goals are ambitious. Too many states included long-term goals without any context for prior performance. In some states, that was because data from newly implemented assessments were not yet available, but that was not universal. The states with the clearest plans were those that provided a rationale—using data—to explain why their new expectations were ambitious. For instance, New Mexico used its recent rate of growth in graduation rates and English language proficiency to establish the state’s goal, and explain how it intends to increase the rate of improvement.

Benchmark goals to reality. Debate continues about the value of aspirational (or “utopian”) goals, but the fact of the matter is that the best goal research available instructs us to set goals that are attainable and realistic. Otherwise, everyone stops paying attention (insert standard NCLB reference here). This approach projects an ambitious long-term goal based on the reality of year-to-year school progress. The benchmarking can occur in two different ways. First, the state can review its prior-year data to identify the amount of improvement demonstrated annually by a school at a certain percentile of improvement (e.g., the school that was in the 60th percentile of improvement for the last three years demonstrated 2.5 percentage points of progress on the state’s assessment annually). It would be up to the state determine what percentile of school is an appropriate benchmark. Second, the state could benchmark progress to a peer state. An example of this is for a state to set its four-year graduation rate goal at a rate similar to the state with the greatest growth in graduation rates over the past three years.

Align K–12 and postsecondary education goals. As Education Strategy Group has written previously, focusing on high school graduation is not enough—states need to set their sights on helping all students seamlessly transition to postsecondary education and training. States should back map from their postsecondary attainment goals, the number of students needed to seamlessly enroll in credit-bearing coursework, and set their K–12 goals accordingly. Nearly forty states have attainment goals, yet very few have vertically aligned their K–12 system goals with the postsecondary attainment goals. Four states (Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon, and Tennessee) in Round One took advantage of the ESSA opportunity to ground their ambitions in a broader frame for student success. Greater detail about the approach can be found in “Aligning K-12 and Higher Education Goals to Support Success for All Students.”

Keep timelines relatively short. To inspire action, goals need to be timely and achievable. A handful of states proposed goals for thirteen years in the future, aligned to the length of time students traditionally spend in the K–12 system. While this rationale is reasonable, goal setting research suggests that a timeline of this length will not inspire immediate action, and peer reviewers seem to agree. Given this, a timeline of six to ten years for the long-term goal appears to be an appropriate approach. Most states with higher education attainment goals have established 2025 as the end point, thus it would be reasonable for the states’ K–12 system to set their long-term goals on that timeline as well to bring about clear alignment.

Fortunately, the Department and states—equally—have time to address this issue. The Secretary and her team are under tremendous pressure to deliver feedback to states on a quick timeline, and some initial stumbles are to be expected as they navigate this new process. Based on the recently released second batch of feedback letters, it appears the Department has learned its lesson and is working to correct this issue. Gone are questions of ambition; in its place are questions for additional detail. This is the right strategy. The Department should defer to state goals, so long as a state can defend them using data.

And states have work to do as well. When resubmitting plans, or submitting new plans in Round Two, every state should provide more detail and data to explain their rational in choosing ambitious goals. Not only will this help in the review process, but it will also provide valuable information to the state’s stakeholders.

Like Goldilocks, this story can end happily ever after.

Ryan Reyna is Senior Associate at Education Strategy Group, where he leads support for states on K-12 accountability. Previously, he served as Director of Accountability and Data Management at the Delaware Department of Education.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.