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Highlights from Hunt Institute’s “Opportunities and Responsibilities: A First Look at ESSA” Conference

By Nazanin Mohajeri-Nelson, Director, Data, Program Evaluation, and Reporting, Federal Programs
Wednesday, March 30, 2016 - 10:31am

State legislators, board of education members, and other educational leaders from 14 states gathered in Atlanta, Georgia on February 26th and 27th to gain information from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Conference of State Legislatures, National Association of State Boards of Education, Data Quality Campaign, Education Trust, Council of Chief State School Officers, Teach Plus, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Thomas B. Fordham Institute and educators including two teachers and one superintendent.  The conference was hosted by The Hunt Institute.

After receiving an overview of ESSA from the National Conference of State Legislatures, conference attendees discussed the intent of the new statute. Presenters reminded us that the focus on equity and closing achievement gaps has always been in the ESEA statute and continues to be emphasized in ESSA.  The statute offers flexibility to states in identifying or developing rigorous assessments that allow for comparable data across schools, which can be used to develop holistic statewide accountability systems that will increase the likelihood of identifying and closing achievement gaps. The expectation that at least 95% of all students and 95% of students in each disaggregated group participate in state assessment remains a part of the statute.

Clarification was provided that states are only required to submit one consolidated state plan, which subsumes the state’s equity plan, Titles I, II, and III plans, and the accountability plan. The state plan must be well-planned, clearly designed to produce outcomes for students, and rely upon input from various key stakeholders, including but not limited to civil rights advocacy groups, students, families, community members, teachers and other educators, and local educational agencies.

USDE is currently in “listening mode” and collecting input from across the country. Ary Amerikaner and Ann Whalen from the USDE presented two separate sessions and each emphasized that states should take the time needed to be thorough, thoughtful, and strategic in developing state plans, treat 2015-16 and 2016-17 as transition years, continue to implement interventions for current focus and priority schools through the end of 2016-17 (even though waivers technically expire on 8/1/16), and give the USDE time to replace 14 years of rules, regulations, and guidance which had been developed under No Child Left Behind, the former ESEA reauthorized statute (in effect from 2002 to 2015).

Conference audience members requested that the USDE minimize rule-making to allow the level of flexibility intended and to offer templates and guidance for state plan development as soon as possible. Requests were also made that the USDE align requirements across agencies (e.g, with Office of Civil Rights).

The Education Trust representative, Ryan Smith, offered the following questions for consideration during state plan development:

1)    What are aggressive but achievable goals, especially on new CCR-aligned tests?

2)    Beyond tests and grad rates, what indicators will add to the picture of school performance as opposed to masking outcomes?

3)    What is a rigorous definition of “consistently underperforming” for groups, especially on the indicators on which there aren’t clear goals?

4)    What are appropriate supports and interventions for the lowest performers?  Schools with underperforming groups?

5)    What are the right timelines for these supports and interventions?  They need time to take hold, but we can’t let students languish.

States were encouraged to take advantage of this tremendous opportunity afforded by ESSA to seek rigorous, high quality assessments while putting forth efforts to reduce the amount of time spent on testing (both state- and district-mandated assessments). Aimee Guidera of Data Quality Campaign pleaded with audience members to “not turn back the clock” by eliminating data points or assessments, but rather improving the way in which assessment results are used to “empower parents” to be a partner in their child’s/children’s education and to “shine a light on what’s working” and “inform continuous improvement.”

Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent who turned around the Miami-Dade County Public School District, formerly one of the lowest performing districts in the nation, spoke passionately about the commitment and conviction required to turn around low performing systems. His recommendations included having high expectations of all students including subgroups, making student-centered decisions, and not blaming low performance on school demographics. No excuses!