The new federal legislation, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) challenges states to draw on lessons from the last 15 years and to refine their accountability systems to provide the right combination of pressure and support for school improvement.
Conversely, accountability systems are our main vehicle for communicating expectations and spurring action. They set expectations for what it means to be a good school.
What exactly is an accountability system?
An accountability system is the set of policies and practices that a state uses to measure and hold schools and districts responsible for raising student achievement for all students, and to prompt and support improvement where necessary.
Accountability systems have two closely related parts:
- A way of signaling how well schools are doing (Example: A-F grades, or 1-5 stars) and
- The actions that must result from those ratings; including rewards or recognition for high-performing schools and districts; in addition to: resources, supports, and interventions for those schools that are struggling.
Nevertheless, while standards and assessments tell us whether students are gaining the skills and knowledge they need, accountability systems reveal data that indicate when both schools and districts have to take steps to improve. Accordingly, this expectation of action is critical if we want all students to graduate high school ready for whatever they wish to do next.
Accountability systems correlate to a students’ ability to be able to attend college; train for a job that will allow them to support a family; or pass gateway exams required in order to serve in our country’s armed services.
What does ESSA require of newly redesigned accountability systems?
ESSA requires all states to hold schools accountable for the achievement of all groups of students. States are required to set goals for improving student performance on state assessments and graduation rates for all students and for each student group. Notwithstanding, these goals must require bigger gains for groups of students who are further behind. States must also set goals for progress toward English proficiency for English learners; as well as, goals for special education students.
States must then assign ratings to schools based on how they perform against these goals; as outlined in the following two measures: 1. An academic indicator for elementary and middle schools; and 2. An additional indicator of school quality for all schools.
Conversely, school ratings have to be based on how schools are doing on each indicator for all students and for each student group. Moreover, if a school is consistently underperforming for any group of students, its rating has to reflect that information. States must also identify three types of schools for support and improvement. These include: 1. Schools that are extremely low-performing for all students, or have low graduation rates; 2. Schools consistently underperforming for any group of students; and 3. Schools showing a pattern of low-performance for one or more groups of students.
Consequently, each of these categories of schools, under ESSA, must take action to improve. Districts are required to work with these schools to develop and implement improvement plans. If the lowest performing schools do not improve after a number of years, the state has to take action as well.
Why do advocates need to pay attention?
Nevertheless, when it comes to accountability, details matter. While a well-designed accountability system shines a light on educational disparities, a badly designed one can actually hide achievement and opportunity gaps. Conversely, enabling schools and districts to sweep underperformance for all students or for individual student groups under the rug.
Ordinarily, ESSA requirements provide some important protections for historically underserved student groups. For example, the fact that ratings have to be based on how schools are doing for all groups of students will make it harder to conceal schools’ failure to adequately support some groups of students behind higher averages. Nevertheless, the law also leaves many important decisions for each state to evaluate, to include:
- What exactly to measure?
- How to define “consistent underperformance” for a group of students?
- How to support low-performing schools?
Needless to say, states are already under a lot of pressure to “water down” their accountability systems, and that pressure is likely to get worse in the coming months.
Consequently, states will be pressured to include a lot of measures that make schools look good; give as many schools as possible high ratings (even if they’re failing to serve some of their students); and to require as few schools as possible to take steps to improve.
As advocates, we must push states to measure what matters most. Conversely, by maintaining a “laser-like” focus on the progress of all groups of students, and at a minimum expecting any school that is not making progress for a group of students to improve.
In designing school accountability systems, state leaders will have to make key decisions. Here are some of the main questions they will need to answer:
- Which indicators should we use to measure school performance?
- How do we combine all of the indicators we’re measuring into a school rating?
- How do we make sure that these ratings meaningfully reflect how schools are doing for all groups of students?
- What should states and districts do to ensure change in the lowest performing schools?
- What about schools that are doing okay on average, but are not making progress for one or more student groups?
- What roles parents, educators and members of the community have in these decisions?
Notwithstanding, each of these pieces: indicators, ratings, and the supports and improvement actions that result from them, are critically important for creating an accountability system that expect schools to focus on in improving outcomes for all groups of students; in addition to: accelerating learning for students who come in behind.