As Rick Hess and Michael McShane stress in their recent volume Common Core Meets Education Reform, it is foolhardy not to consider how the Common Core standards fit into the broader education-reform agenda. How these competing reforms and policies will impact one another remains to be seen.

In this final blog post on how states are handling accountability in the transition to the Common Core, we focus on one such external factor: ESEA waivers. To date, the vast majority of states have received permission to adjust their accountability systems and gain flexibility from NCLB’s stringent “adequate-yearly-progress” requirements. But how do existing accountability provisions affect Common Core implementation across our small sample of states?

Though ESEA waivers were granted to give states additional flexibility, states are now finding themselves locked into a set of new, yet still restrictive, federal policies.

States that adopted the Common Core and applied for ESEA waivers are now finding themselves in a difficult place. While most states have adopted more rigorous academic standards, they remain accountable to prior waiver commitments to improve student achievement and instructional quality. The U.S. Department of Education has permitted waiver states to postpone using student achievement to evaluate educators and make high-stakes personnel decisions, but whether the Department will be as flexible with other aspects of accountability remains unclear.

One example of the tension created by changing accountability inputs is that most states use student learning as a gauge of teacher performance. However, as states begin to implement CCSS, many are unsure of how to calculate proficiency and growth thresholds, particularly as assessments are changing. Another complication is the tiered accountability systems in place for schools and/or districts in many states. States that have adopted these tiered accountability systems, with increasing sanctions for schools and districts for greater years of demonstrated poor performance, must now figure out what to do when low test scores on new assessments push previously under-performing schools and districts into the highest level of remediation. Will states reset improvement windows or simply pick back up where they left off? The implications of these decisions, and where cut points are drawn, are sizeable.

This is certainly the case in Massachusetts, where the state revised its accountability system as part of its ESEA waiver but also has a preexisting tiered accountability system in place. Under Massachusetts’s tiered system, schools and districts are ranked into five levels based on four years of student performance on state assessments. The highest-scoring schools and districts are given greater degrees of autonomy and flexibility, while chronically underperforming schools face state takeovers or oversight. While Massachusetts does not anticipate a huge drop in student scores after fully transitioning to the Common Core standards and assessments, it is unclear how the state’s accountability provisions may be affected by the changing inputs to these measures.

Arkansas also revised its accountability provisions under its ESEA waiver and is now rolling out the new system while also implementing the Common Core. Similar to Massachusetts, Arkansas delivers targeted interventions to the lowest-performing schools, while giving more autonomy to higher-performing schools. However, per its ESEA-waiver conditions, even after the state transitions to the Common Core standards and Common Core–aligned tests, the state will remain committed to reducing proficiency gaps by 50 percent by 2017.

In Colorado, The Education Accountability Act (Senate Bill 163) outlines accountability measures for states, districts, and schools. Under this system, districts placed into the lowest-ranking category are given five years to improve, and starting in the 2015–16 school year, districts can potentially lose their accreditation. However, as schools and districts in the state begin to implement Common Core–aligned standards and assessments, cut scores and performance expectations will likely change. Similar to the issues other states are facing, educators and policymakers in Colorado will need to decide whether to reset the five-year improvement window or simply pick back up where they left off under the old system. As it is likely that the lowest-ranking category will shift, where does that leave schools that were previously receiving supports and are no longer? What will happen if a much greater number of schools are identified as eligible for support?

Clearly, policymakers must put serious thought into how previously negotiated accountability systems will mesh with new standards and assessments. If states require additional flexibility, will the federal government allow states to revise their accountability systems accordingly? These conversations are past due if they have not occurred already.

For other entries in this blog series, see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

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