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