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School accountability has long been under fire, but it was the pandemic that actually forced a bold move to pause it! For the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, states did not have to use the results of standardized tests to identify schools needing help. Now, the U.S. Department of Education is insisting that states resume that approach, which may prove challenging. Catch a glimpse of what the restart means:

  • The pandemic disrupted the first interventions for schools requiring improvement under the Every Student Succeeds Act.
  • Now many states will be setting new testing goals to meet students’ unprecedented academic needs with reimagined school quality and academic indicators.

The last two years

Resuming acccountability

  • States must resume flagging schools in need of help.
  • The Education Department is requiring states to identify three groups of schools in the fall for assistance, based on this spring’s testing results.
    • Lowest-performing 5% of schools and high schools in which a third of students aren’t graduating.
    • Groups of students (like English-language learners or students with disabilities) that repeatedly fall behind
    • Subgroups that perform as poorly as students in the lowest-performing schools.
  • ESSA’s give states leeway in identification systems:
    • States design indicators to be used
    • Indicator weight
    • Required school interventions
  • All states must make new identifications in the fall.

Measurement issues

  • States are struggling to resolve some tricky measurement issues.
  • Assessment remains the lynchpin of these identifications systems.
  • Hugely divergent participation rates on the 2020-21 exams remains the most significant problem. 
  • Missing data and low participation rates threaten to throw off the measure of student growth that most states use as an additional academic indicator in their accountability system
  • The question as to whether or not this is even feasible remains.
  • People recognize there are issues with essentially missing data in 2021, but there are more states than expected that are trying to push forward with growth.
  • Challenges include:
    • States with less data may need an alternative measure for this year.
    • Changing enrollment patterns and student mobility could threaten test validity.
    • Chronic absenteeism definition.
    • Graduation rates were affected as states changed how they allocated credits during the pandemic.

One-year flexibility

  • The department has given states some new one-year flexibility.
  • For 2021-22, the Education Department has offered states what it’s billed as one-year technical flexibility to get the systems back up and running. This allows states to change:
    • student growth measures.
    • features on their school report cards.
    • indicator weight (or add a new indicator designed to address pandemic-related challenges).
    • rules to “exit” schools from an improvement category.
  • Education Department has approved nine states’ plans, and it is negotiating with 15 others.

Other proposals

  • Some of states’ proposed changes could be longer-lasting.
  • Two flexibilities were offered in acknowledgement of the challenges schools faced during the pandemic, but they raise concerns:
    • The department is letting states push back their long-term goals for student learning by up to two years, signalling to states that it’s OK to take their feet off the gas pedal.
    • The law requires states to ramp up interventions if schools with across-the-board under-performance don’t improve after at least four years, or in other schools where the performance of subgroups continues to be low. But the department says that states can propose holding off on escalating those consequences for two years.

The tie to funding

  • School identification matters because it triggers additional funding.
  • Under ESSA, states reserve at least 7 percent of their Title I money to help support schools identified for improvement.
  • These funds have a significant advantage over other resources—including pandemic recovery funds—because they are annual and continuing, not time-limited.
  • Congress has invested more money in Title I, the program that aids low-income schools and students.
  • More schools are likely to need help this fall due to the pandemics impact on scores.
  • “We have this pot of funds that goes to support school improvement, and we want to make sure that is aligned with the students who have the most needs coming out of the pandemic, not the ones who had the most needs back in 2017 or 2016” – Anne Hyslop, director of policy development at All4Ed,.

What can we expect?

  • What accountability will bring in the long run is anyone’s guess.
  • Some have urged the Education Department to offer even more flexibility than it has.
  • The secretary has articulated the importance of measurement and accountability at a time when there were a lot of threats to it and that has been viewed as important.
  • It is pleasing to see so many states view assessments as an important way to get that check on how students were doing because last year was so chaotic.
  • There is a growing sense among some state officials that the systems might detract from, rather than supplement, their work to get learning back on track. – Ellen Forte of edCount
  • We need to remember why we’re doing all this and perhaps rethink the kind of assessments we use and require, and the data we accept.
  • States are taking new approaches to testing:
    • Illinois is considering exams that are given at various points through the school year instead of at once at the end, so teachers don’t just get feedback at the end of the year when it’s too late to re-teach.
    • Florida recently passed new legislation to shift to that model.
  • The biggest and toughest question: After 20 years of federal accountability, where should we go from here?
  • “Let’s insist upon accountability, but also acknowledge where the instruments and measures in the system need to be improved to get a better outcome.” – John White, the former state superintendent in Louisiana


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