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ESSA, First Round Feedback

By Adriana Jarquin, CEI Intern

As the transition period for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) comes to an end, states are beginning to prepare for the 2017-2018 school year by submitting their new education plans to the U.S. Department of Education. All states are required to submit new accountability plans to be peer reviewed and approved before implementation can take place. Two deadlines were set by the Department of Education: the first was April 2017, followed by a September 2017 deadline. With the April deadline, 16 states and the District of Columbia submitted plans for review.

At this interim date, how are states faring? Reports by an independent third-party that conducted a review for the U.S. Department of Education, and others, including the Education Commission of the States, differ in their assessment of the current status of the ESSA plans. Below, we provide a summary of some of the key points from the independent assessment, followed by a summary of concerns expressed by others.

The Process

The formal peer review process is being conducted by an independent third-party group. The Bellwether Education Partners along with the Collaborative for Student Success have teamed up to convene a panel of more than 30 education policy experts with state level experience whose focus is the success of the students. Among this group, experts where included who were familiar with the challenges that arise in educating students with disabilities and English Language Learners. State plans were reviewed by small groups and were evaluated on a rubric across nine categories, which were scored on a scale of 1 (This practice should be avoided by other states) to 5 (This could be a potential model for other states.) The nine categories include: goals, standards and assessments, accountability indicators, academic progress, all students, identifying schools, supporting schools, exiting improvement status, and continuous improvement. After feedback was provided by the peer reviewers, states had a chance to revise and resubmit their plans. The process is still on going as states seek final approval from the federal government.

Highlight and Front Runners

According to a July 2017 report from Bellwether Partners, the peer review process uncovered promising trends in the State Plans submitted by the 17 states that met an April 2017 deadline for submission. One positive trend is states’ expansion of their accountability systems beyond reading and math test scores to other subjects such as science, physical education, art and school climate. Another positive trend was seen at the high school level where more states included indicators to make sure students were taking proper steps to be college and career ready beyond high school. Lastly, all 17 plans modified the way they measure student growth. States have increased the accuracy of measurements of student growth by examining year-to-year growth rather than reported a static score at a given point in time.

Among the 17 states to submit their plans, a couple notable states took the lead as exemplary states to follow in each categories according to the Bellwether Report,

  1. When it comes to Goals and Identifying Schools, Louisiana came out on top. Louisiana provided an ambitious goal to sustain its recent gains and increase its proficiency rate by 2.5% for all students each year from 2018-2025. When it comes to identifying at-risk schools, Louisiana’s A-F school-rating system provides a single, clear rubric for evaluating school performance. It also plans to identify 17% of its schools for comprehensive support and improvement.

  2. New Jersey. For ‘Standards and Assessments,’ New Jersey’s state plan received top marks. New Jersey plans to be strongly committed to getting high school students career and college ready.

  3. New Mexico received top marks in ‘Accountability Indicators,” ‘Supporting Schools,’ and ‘Continuous Improvement.’ According to the Bellwether Report, New Mexico did a great job of including meaningful non-academic indicators to assess student success over time such as measuring growth of the lowest-performing students, extended-year graduation rates, chronic absenteeism and college readiness. When it comes to ‘Supporting Schools,’ while New Mexico fell short in providing details on how it will implement interventions in low performing schools, it did an excellent job stating what action will be taken in schools that fail to improve in a span of 3 years after being identified as low performing. As for ‘Continuous Improvement,’ New Mexico has outlined ways it will continue to engage stakeholders on their implementation efforts which include developing future science assessments, and an ‘Opportunity-to-learn’ survey.

  4. In the Academic Progress category, Arizona took the lead with its plan to measure student achievement and growth by comparing students to each other as well as to a common grade-level benchmark.

  5. When it comes to ‘Exiting Improvement Status,’ Nevada’s plan takes top marks; it set a rigorous and clear exit criteria for low performing schools to reach before being allowed to move past comprehensive or targeted improved status. Schools will be required to show significant improvement over time which will be measured by requiring the schools to meet their interim targets or reduce non-proficiency rates of the specific low performing subgroup by 10% for two consecutive years.

Future Directions

While there were some good elements in this first round of state plans and a few states came out as examples to follow, the peer review process found that there is still room for improvement. One such area is in the category of ‘All Students.’ In this area, peer reviewers were looking to see if states had checks in place to ensure that all students, including subgroups, are receiving high quality education. No state earned top marks in this category; they failed to provide detailed plans and accountability when it came to dealing with subgroups and often just repeated the definition used in the law. According to the Bellwether review, an overall lack of details in state plans is worrisome as the ESSA attempts to provide states with more power to design a system that caters to their specific state. States have a responsibility to be as clear as possible with their new plans so that parents, educators and the community at large knows what to expect from their school systems.

The Other Side

The skepticism and criticism that states received in response to the plans submitted this April have left many state leaders confused and irritated. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., expressed concerns that the federal government may be over stepping its power in the feedback process. The Council of Chief State School Officers believes that strong criticism and prescriptive feedback from the feds is going against the intent of ESSA — that the states, and not the federal government, should be dictating school accountability. Additionally, feedback hasn’t been consistent across state plans, leaving many states confused. For example, Delaware, Louisiana and Tennessee all submitted plans that proposed using AP courses as a measure of students’ college and career-readiness.

AP Classes ‘“ A Good Indicator of Academic Progress? In the feedback states received, Delaware was told that AP classes would not be a good indicator, while Louisiana and Tennessee were allowed to go forward with it.

How Ambitious Should State Goals Be? Another concern, which became evident with the feedback to Delaware, was the way the federal government was defining certain terms. Delaware was told that their long-term goal was not ‘ambitious’ enough. Delaware disagreed, stating that their goal to reduce by half the number of students who are not proficient in math and English/language art by 2030, was in fact a big challenge. When it comes to being consistent and yet mindful of the concerns and needs of individual states, the feds might want to reconsider how they approach the evaluation. Perhaps by considering the state’s projected growth in relationship to previous patterns for the individual state, the feds will find a way to address some of the concerns of the states.

Last Minute Update:  According to an article today in EdWeek, Delaware’s plan has been approved and Michigan, after a discussion with DeVos, is feeling a bit more hopeful that some of its concerns are being taken into consideration.

As states continue to revise and resubmit their plans seeking approval, they must walk a thin line between revising to get approved and not giving up the power and flexibility the ESSA has provided the states. In the upcoming weeks, we will continue to dive into some individual state plans that have proposed to use non-traditional indicators to measure school quality such as physical fitness assessments, emotional support observations,  and exploration of arts, among other factors.


Aldeman, C., Marchitello, M., Pennington, K. (2017). An Independent review of ESSA State Plans. Bellweather Education Partners.

The Collaborative For Student Success. (2017). Check State Plans


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