ESSA’s Opportunities and Risks: Do States’ Rights Lead to States’ Wrongs?

Madison Weiss, AYPF Policy Research Intern

The day’s event began with three central, thought-provoking equity questions: Are states keeping student learning front and center? Do school ratings reflect how schools are doing for all groups of students? Is the state being honest about which schools need to take steps to improve for one or more student groups?

Last month, I attended a policy webinar hosted by the National Council on Measurement in Education and GW Graduate School of Education and Human Development featuring Dr. John B. King and Dean Michael Feuer. The webinar focused on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and examined if and how states are working to advance equity and excellence in their schools. Dr. King highlighted the many challenges and opportunities of ESSA, and how the five new indicators can act as safeguards to ensure school quality.

The five indicators were developed to help states improve their accountability systems and close gaps in achievement and graduation rates. The indicators include: student growth and achievement in reading and math; graduation rates for high schools; English language proficiency; for elementary and middle schools, an additional indicator on student growth such as science achievement, and at least one indicator of school quality or success, such as career and college readiness.

Source: The Education Trust, Trends in ESSA State Plans

Progress for all student groups has gone up, yet there are still significant equity gaps. For example, in the 2014-2015 school year, the U.S. hit a new record for high school graduation rates at 83%. However, the graduation gaps for African American, Hispanic, and English Language Learners continues to stagnate. ESSA offers state leaders an opportunity to refocus education policies and systems to improve opportunity and outcomes for traditionally underserved young people. With this law, many key decisions are left up to the states – from what indicator is measured, to communicating how schools are doing on those measures, to identifying schools that need to improve for any group of students and what to do for school improvement efforts (The Education Trust, 2017). While most state ESSA plans do suggest a commitment to equity in education, Dr. King reminded the audience that traditionally and historically states’ rights and civil rights have not traveled well together. By empowering states to define the tools used to report how schools measure up to the indicators, there is a risk that states could retreat from meaningful accountability and their commitment to civil rights.

What concerns Dr. King and advocates alike, is that many state leaders opt out of naming and taking action on schools’ underperformance with regard to low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English learners. Many schools choose to adopt school ratings based on overall averages, largely bypassing the results of individual student groups. Because of this system, there is little incentive for districts and schools to focus on raising achievement for underserved student groups. The disaggregation of data is important as it allows administrators and educators to see how groups of students in schools are either performing or underperforming and allows for more targeted interventions.

Circling back to the beginning of the webinar, Dr. King’s three equity questions can act as a guide when analyzing individual state plans. These questions help to determine if a plan is likely to promote and improve outcomes for all student groups and begin the process from plan development to plan implementation (The Education Trust 2017).

1. Are States Keeping Student Learning Front and Center? 

“What a state chooses to measure as part of its accountability system matters because accountability systems communicate expectations” (The Education Trust 2017). In addition to the assessment-based indicators, states have the option to choose from a limited number of measures that can add to the overall picture of how well schools are serving groups of students. These indicators include: chronic absenteeism, measures of college/career readiness, and on-track rates.

So, what do we do with these multiple measures? Ideally, multiple measures combined with disaggregated data leads to evidence-based reforms and interventions. Schools are encouraged to respond meaningfully when groups of students are not performing according to standards laid out in the State ESSA plan. The danger that emerges here is a reporting loop-hole where schools choose to only focus on average performance. In this situation, “all students” are proficient however, the data of African American, Latino, or students with disabilities is undermined. This is where the importance of disaggregation comes into play because in order to provide meaningful interventions, schools need to clearly name and identify how groups of students are underperforming.

2. Do School Ratings Reflect how Schools are Doing for all Groups of Students? 

School ratings, whether it is an A-F, 0-100, or 1 to 5-star system, communicate to schools, communities, and families whether or not a school meets expectations. During his presentation, Dr. King emphasized the importance of basing school ratings on how and what “schools are doing for historically underserved groups of students – including low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English learners – as this sends a powerful signal that the achievement of all students matters and that schools have a responsibility to serve all of their students, not just some” (The Education Trust, 2017).

Educational advocates have raised concerns with the way school ratings are reported. The majority of states assign ratings to schools based on school-wide averages, in the same way state leaders report on the average performance of student success on ESSA indicators. This practice effectively ignores the performance of individual student groups. In states like Florida, New Mexico and Maryland, where ratings are based entirely on school-wide averages, the performance of individual student groups, and the educational disparities and inequities they face, are largely ignored. A disappointing and staggering trend in our society is that the students who need the most get the least – less access to effective teachers, school counselors, advanced coursework, resources, and funding.

Most alarming is the continued use of supergroups. Rather than looking at the results of each individual student group, some states choose to combine students from historically underserved groups to create a “supergroup.” A supergroup could include any student who is low-income, an English learner, or a student with a disability. “This approach allows the result of one group of students to mask those of another” (The Education Trust, 2017). By treating multiple groups of students as one entity, the unique needs of and necessary interventions for these groups is stripped away. The decision to base ratings on overall averages means that schools, even if they are low-performing, will receive high marks, “despite low outcomes and little to no progress for historically underserved students.”

3. Is the State Being Honest About Which Schools Need to Take Steps to Improve Outcomes for Individual Groups of Students?

How a state decides to identify schools for targeted support matters as identification communicates expectations. In their ESSA plans, states were asked to identify the minimum level of performance that is acceptable before intervention is required. This was an opportunity for schools to take action for historically underserved student groups by setting “a clear and rigorous definition of consistent underperformance” (The Education Trust, 2017).

Most states set their expectations too low. This suggests that statewide policy-makers are more concerned with high ratings than providing support to schools that serve low-income students, student of color, students with disabilities, or English learners.

Call to Action

At the end of his presentation, Dr. King asked the audience to reject the notion that we (as students, educators, policymakers) have to either address student issues inside the classroom or outside the classroom, but not both. The challenges students face day-to-day in school are not isolated from the many challenges students face in their day-to-day lives. Too often education policy and reform efforts become stalled as policymakers struggle to decide what to address first: the happenings inside the classroom or outside the classroom that impact student learning.

The bottom line is quite clear – kids are present in both arenas and both need to be addressed. Dr.King called upon policy-makers, educators and reformers to help shift the conversation. He asked us to consider how we can make the classroom as strong as possible while creating intersections between the many policies on housing, food, access to healthcare, or violence in the community. By doing so, this intersection allows for the creation of a more holistic and well-rounded learning environment that can positively impact student learning, foster greater student engagement, and ultimately lead to interventions that address the unique needs of student subgroups.



The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.