Rating the Ratings

Analyzing the First 17 ESSA Accountability Plans

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The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) grants states more authority over their school accountability systems than did No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—meaning that states now have a greater opportunity to design improved school ratings. Rating the Ratings: Analyzing the First 17 ESSA Accountability Plans examines whether states are making the most of the moment.

In our view, three of the most important improvements that states can make are to ensure that their accountability systems:

  1. Assign annual ratings to schools that are clear and intuitive for parents, educators, and the public;
  2. Encourage schools to focus on all students, not just their low performers; and
  3. Fairly measure and judge all schools, including those with high rates of poverty.

Table 1 shows the results for the seventeen plans that have been submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, sixteen of which have enough information for us to rate. (Click the state name to read its profile.) Although many national observers have been worried about their rigor and quality—and, to be clear, we see some plans in need of improvement—we find that, for the most part, states are moving in a positive direction under ESSA. In fact, in our view, seven states have proposed ratings systems that range from good to great.

For each of the three objectives, states can earn grades of strongmedium, or weak. Three states—Arizona, Colorado, and Illinois—earn strong ratings across the board. Four others—Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Tennessee, and Vermont—receive two strong marks and one medium. Only one state, North Dakota, misses the mark entirely, earning three weak ratings.

Table 1. Results for states that have submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Education

Other key findings:

  • State systems are particularly strong when it comes to assigning clear and intuitive labels. Eleven earn a strong mark for using either A-F grades, five-star systems, or user-friendly numerical systems.
  • Similarly, eight plans earn a strong rating for signaling that every child is important—a huge improvement on NCLB-era systems, which encouraged a focus on "bubble kids," those just below or above states' proficiency cutoffs, to the detriment of other students.
  • We see somewhat less progress when it comes to making accountability systems fair to high-poverty schools. Only four states earn a strong here. But nine others get by with a medium rating, so the news here is still good, compared to systems in place under NCLB.

The seventeen jurisdictions that submitted their ESSA applications by the first deadline volunteered to be guinea pigs—or, if you like, sacrificial lambs. There is little doubt that the other thirty-four states are watching closely, both to see models they might emulate and to learn how the U.S. Department of Education reacts to what has been proposed.

Will the remaining states do even better? We see no reason why they cannot. We’ll be back in the autumn to find out how they do.

Additional Resources:

How states can avoid proficiency rates when measuring academic achievement under ESSA
By Brandon L. Wright
Flypaper | July 21, 2017

The first 17 ESSA accountability plans correct many NCLB-era errors
By Brandon L. Wright and Michael J. Petrilli
Flypaper | July 27, 2017

Unless they want to flunk virtually all high-poverty schools, policymakers should go for growth
By Aaron Churchill
Flypaper | May 17, 2017

Why states should use student growth, and not proficiency rates, when gauging school effectiveness
By Michael J. Petrilli and Aaron Churchill
Flypaper | October 13, 2016


July 27, 2017
Executive Summary

What Teens Want From Their Schools

A National Survey of High School Student Engagement

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Among high school students who consider dropping out, half cite lack of engagement with the school as a primary reason, and 42 percent report that they don’t see value in the schoolwork they are asked to do. In What Teens Want from Their Schools: A National Survey of High School Student Engagement, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Crux Research tackle the question of what truly motivates and engages students in high school.

Our nationally representative survey of over two thousand high schoolers in traditional public, charter, and private schools finds that nearly all students report being motivated to apply themselves academically, but they also primarily engage in school through different levers. Specifically, we identified six subgroups of students with varying engagement profiles: (Hover over each illustration to read their characteristics!)

Subject Lovers


Hand Raisers

Social Butterflies

Teacher Responders

Deep Thinkers

We’ve heard it a million times: a “one size fits all” education system all but guarantees that some students will be left out and ultimately left behind. Given that students are motivated to learn via different levers, student engagement and choice—among schools, teachers, courses, delivery options, instructional strategies, and so on—need to go hand in hand. 

This report was made possible through the generous support of the American Federation for Children Growth Fund, the Walton Family Foundation, and our sister organization, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.


June 27, 2017
Foreword and Executive Summary
June 27, 2017
Complete Survey Results
June 27, 2017
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Interdistrict Open Enrollment in Ohio: Participation and Student Outcomes

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Interdistrict open enrollment allows students to attend public schools outside their district of residence. It is among the largest and most widespread of school-choice efforts in the United States but often flies under the radar in policy discussions. In Ohio, over 70,000 students open enroll into schools outside their district of residence. However, despite the large scale, relatively little is known about the operation of open enrollment and the outcomes of students who participate in it.

This first-of-its-kind analysis, conducted by Ohio State University professor Stéphane Lavertu and Deven Carlson of the University of Oklahoma, uses statewide data to examine who uses open enrollment and how open enrollees perform academically.

The report yields the following findings:

  1. Consistent open enrollment is associated with modest but positive test-score gains
  2. African American open enrollees appear to make substantial gains
  3. Open enrollment throughout high school boosts the probability of on-time graduation

This is invaluable new data for a little-understood but heavily-utilized program. We urge you to download the report to learn more about what works for open enrollees across Ohio.

To see if your district participates in open enrollment, click on the image below to access a searchable, interactive map of Ohio (to scroll side to side, use the small arrow at the bottom of the list of icons) :


Pathway to Success: The Charles School broadens college access for students who need it

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A college degree is becoming increasingly necessary in order for young people to attain the jobs they want, and yet getting to and through college in some ways has never been more challenging. Many students are ill-prepared when they arrive, others lack the “soft” skills necessary to succeed in a postsecondary environment, and the cost of college is immense. For first-generation college students, these challenges can be daunting.

The Charles School (TCS), a Columbus charter high school that is part of the Graham Family of Schools, partners with Ohio Dominican University to provide an early college experience to students. Students can graduate with up to 62 hours of college credit, tuition free, and earn a high school diploma as well as an associate’s degree in a five-year program.

TCS and other high-quality charter options like it illuminate a path to and through college for many students like Chris Sumlin, profiled in this report. May his compelling story encourage us to support any school option that is effective at closing the college-going gap and setting young people up for success.

Three Signs That a Proposed Charter School Is at Risk of Failing

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It’s well established that some charter schools do far better than others at educating their students. This variability has profound implications for the children who attend those schools. Yet painful experience shows that rebooting or closing a low-performing school is a drawn-out and excruciating process.

But what if we could predict which schools are likely not to succeed—before they’ve even opened their doors? Doing so would mean that authorizers could select stronger schools to open, thereby protecting children and ultimately leading to a higher-performing charter sector overall.

In Three Signs That a Proposed Charter School Is at Risk of Failing, analysts Anna Nicotera and David Stuit investigated that very question, examining more than six hundred charter school applications across four states. They found three “risk factors” in approved applications that were significant predictors of a school’s future weak performance in its first years of operation:

  1. Lack of identified leadership: Charter applications that propose a self-managed school without naming a school leader.
  2. High risk, low dose: Charter applications that propose to serve at-risk pupils but plan to employ “low dose” academic programs that do not include sufficient academic supports, such as intensive small-group instruction or extensive individual tutoring.
  3. A child-centered curriculum: Charter applications that propose to deploy child-centered, inquiry-based pedagogies, such as Montessori, Waldorf, Paideia, or experiential programs.

Further, when an application displayed two or more of these risk factors, the likelihood of low performance rose to 80 percent.

The study also found that the following indicators, among others, made it more likely that an application would be rejected entirely:

  • A lack of evidence that the school will start with a sound financial foundation;
  • No description of how the school will use data to evaluate educators or inform instruction;
  • No discussion of how the school will create and sustain a culture of high expectations; and
  • No plans to hire a management organization to run the school.

The appearance of these risk and rejection factors should lead to considerably deeper inquiry, heightened due diligence, and perhaps a requirement for additional information. These results are meant to enhance an authorizer’s existing review procedures—not to discourage innovation and experimentation within the charter realm going forward.

Deciding whether to give the green light to a new charter school is a weighty decision. This report gives authorizers, operators, and advocates one more tool in their toolkit.


April 19, 2017
Foreword & Summary


Leveraging ESSA to Support Quality-School Growth

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Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal School Improvement Grants program is gone, but the goal of school improvement remains. States must now use seven percent of their Title I allocation for these efforts, but are no longer constrained by a prescribed menu of intervention options.

That represents a powerful opportunity for states—one that stakeholders at the city and state level would be wise to leverage.

To help guide efforts, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Education Cities partnered to offer insight into evidence-based school-improvement turnaround efforts that have been successful throughout the country. Authors Nelson Smith and Brandon Wright deconstruct key provisions in ESSA and dig into three promising approaches that can be supported via the Title I set-aside:

  1. Charter expansion: where states support the creation of new, high-quality charter schools to serve communities with low-performing district schools;
  2. State turnaround districts: where a state withdraws control of struggling schools from their districts and consolidates them under a state-led entity; and
  3. State-led, district-based solutions: where a state vests authority over existing districts or individual schools in a single individual who enjoys many of the powers usually exercised by district superintendents and school boards.

Leveraging ESSA to Support Quality-School Growth demonstrates that states need not do the same-old same-old when it comes to school improvement. Now the question is whether states will seize the opportunity.  

The Right Tool for the Job

Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom

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Although it’s been almost seven years since many states took the important step of elevating their academic standards by adopting the Common Core, teachers and administrators across the country still bemoan the lack of reliable information about which instructional materials are high-quality and best aligned to the new standards.  

One recent survey found that a whopping 90 percent of districts reported having major or minor problems identifying high quality, well-aligned resources. A second study found that the majority of textbooks had substantial alignment problems. In response to these reports, several entities such as EdReports, the Louisiana Department of Education, and the California Curriculum Collaborative have begun providing educators with impartial reviews of core instructional and curricular materials. Yet next to no information exists on the quality and content of resources intended to supplement a full curriculum.

The Right Tool for the Job fills that void by providing in-depth reviews of several promising digital learning tools. We focused the series on English language arts (ELA) resources, as educators stress that those are particularly difficult to come by, especially writing tools.

Four all-star educators evaluated the quality and usefulness of the tools: Melody Arabo (a third-grade teacher at Keith Elementary in Michigan), Jonathan Budd (K–12 curriculum director for Trumbull Public Schools in Connecticut), Shannon Garrison (a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Solano Avenue Elementary School in California), and Tabitha Pacheco (an instructional facilitator at a virtual academy in Utah).

These educators reviewed the strengths and weaknesses of nine K–12 ELA/literacy instructional tools:

  • Achieve the Core’s “Text sets,”
  • Curriculet,
  • iCivics Drafting Board,
  • Lexia Reading Core5,
  • Newsela,
  • Quill,
  • ReadWorks,
  • ThinkCERCA, and
  • WriteLike.

Three of these feature text sets, i.e., collections of texts tightly focused on a specific topic, designed to build students' content knowledge, vocabulary, and conceptual understanding. 

Overall, reviewers found these new resources mostly reflect the instructional shifts called for by Common Core (such as including a balance of text types and text-dependent questions for reading and writing). They also lauded the innovative nature and usefulness of text sets as instructional tools, as well as online resources’ student assessment and data reporting capabilities. However, our reviewers found that usability was uneven across products, and stressed the need for clear instructions on how to incorporate each tool’s activities into a teacher’s broader class curriculum. They also cite a lack of information regarding accessibility and accommodations for students with learning disabilities.

Identifying high quality, standards-aligned supplemental tools is extremely time consuming for educators who attempt to do it on their own. This collection of reviews returns some of those hours back to them. 


A Formula That Works: Five ways to strengthen school funding in Ohio

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By Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, Max Marchitello, and Juliet Squire
Ohio’s current approach to school funding (K-12) has several strengths, including its ability to drive more state aid to disadvantaged districts and to add dollars for students with greater educational needs. But in a time when Ohio’s budget – like that of many other states – is stretched thin, policy makers need to ensure that every dollar is being well spent. As state lawmakers debate Ohio’s biennial budget, thoughtful analysis is more important than ever.
Our latest research report, A Formula That Works, takes a deep dive into Ohio’s education funding policies and includes several recommendations for improvement. Conducted by national education policy experts at Bellwether Education Partners, this analysis touches on questions such as: How well does Ohio’s funding system promote fairness and efficiency to all schools and districts? How can policy makers better ensure that all students have the resources needed to reach their goals? And what are the most critical policy issues that legislators should concentrate on as the budget debate proceeds this spring?
All vital questions for Ohio's students, families, schools, and districts.

High Stakes for High Achievers in the Age of ESSA

Parts I and II

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No Child Left Behind meant well, but it had a pernicious flaw: It created strong incentives for schools to focus all their energy on helping low-performing students get over a modest “proficiency” bar. Meanwhile, it ignored the educational needs of high achievers, who were likely to pass state reading and math tests regardless of what happened in the classroom. Those most hurt by this approach were high-achieving, low-income students.

The Every Student Succeeds Act offers a powerful opportunity to change that. Fordham’s two-part report examines states’ current (or planned) accountability systems (as of the summer of 2016) and rates them based on whether they incorporate under ESSA the following principles to incent schools to prioritize high achievers:

  1. Give schools incentives for getting more students to an advanced level of achievement.
  2. Use the flexibility provided by ESSA to rate schools using a true growth model—that is, one that includes the progress of individual students at all achievement levels and not just those who are low-performing or below the “proficient” line.

  3. Make growth—across the achievement spectrum—count for a significant proportion of schools’ summative ratings.

  4. Include high-achieving students as a separate subgroup, and report their progress on school report cards.

  5. Include an indicator that encourages high schools to help able students earn college credit before they graduate, via Advanced Placement programs and the like.

We find that most current (and planned) state accountability systems provide schools with few incentives to focus on their high-achieving students. In fact, our analysis indicates that just one state—Ohio—has a truly praiseworthy system when it comes to focusing attention on these students, though Arkansas is also clearly moving in the right direction in its proposed frameworks.

See the tables below for state ratings, split into two groups: one for states that calculate (or intend to calculate) summative school ratings, and one for those that don’t (or don’t plan to) take this step. Each of these two groups is also divided into ratings for states’ elementary and middle school accountability systems and their high school models.

Table 1: K–8 Results for States without Summative School Ratings

(Click on any of the following state names to view its profile.)

South Carolina
Illinois, Kansas, New Jersey, Tennessee
California, Maryland, Montana, New York, North Dakota


Table 2: High School Results for States without Summative School Ratings

Idaho*, New York*, Ohio
California*, Kansas, New Jersey, Tennessee
Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina

*Indicates that a state's rating was based upon a planned system.

Table 3: K–8 Results for States with Summative School Ratings

Arkansas, Oregon
Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Wyoming
Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia
Michigan, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia


Table 4: High School Results for States with Summative School Ratings

Alabama*, Georgia, Louisiana*, Pennsylvania, Texas
Arkansas, Colorado*, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Mexico
Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, WashingtonWest Virginia*, Wyoming
Arizona, District of Columbia, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island*, Utah, Wisconsin
Illinois*, Maine, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia
*Indicates that a state's rating was based upon a planned system.


August 31, 2016
High Stakes for High Achievers (Part I, Full Report)
November 15, 2016
High Stakes for High Schoolers (Part II, Full Report)
Presentation: High Stakes for High Achievers in the Age of ESSA


Policy Brief: Ohio's Voucher Programs

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The genesis of vouchers in Ohio stretches back to 1995 and the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring program. In 2006, vouchers expanded statewide via the Educational Choice Scholarship (or EdChoice), which aims to assist students assigned to a low-rated public school. Soon after, vouchers were expanded again to provide opportunities for special needs students and for low-income students.
With five voucher programs today; continued calls for expansion; changing funding amounts; and ongoing debates in the areas of accountability, quality, and equity, we offer this fact-based look at Ohio’s voucher system. We hope that it will prove valuable for those who know voucher history and those new to voucher policy in Ohio and beyond.