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#AskExcelinEd: What does ESSA require with respect to accountability for student subgroups?

• Claire Voorhees

As we continue to explore how states are advancing educational equity to offer students quality learning opportunities, National Director of Policy Claire Voorhees, shares how state accountability systems under ESSA can help identify the needs of all students.

In States Leading for Equity, CCSSO and The Aspen Institute called for “measure[ing] what matters” and “creat[ing] accountability for equity.” The report then wisely called on state policymakers to use implementation of their state plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) as a crucial opportunity to design accountability systems that address the equity challenges plaguing their states, encouraging states to move beyond “ESSA-compliance mentality.”

This leads to a question that has recently received significant attention from the education press and members on Capitol Hill overseeing the U.S. Department of Education’s approval of ESSA plans: What does ESSA require with respect to accountability for student subgroups?

Meaningful Differentiation

ESSA requires states to “establish a system of meaningfully differentiating, on an annual basis, all public schools in the State, which shall be based on all indicators in the State’s accountability system … for all students and for each subgroup of students.” See 20 U.S.C 6311(c)(4)(C).

Some argue that this language prohibits schools from earning the highest rating in a state accountability system if that school is failing to adequately serve any of its subgroups. While some states may penalize high-performing schools with low-performing subgroups, interpreting ESSA to require states to do so is a stretch.

First, the law does not require states to calculate a summative rating. As much as some of us “accountability hawks” might not like it, it is widely acknowledged that states can comply with the law using a dashboard as long as they include all the required indicators. Given that ESSA does not require summative ratings in the first place, the law cannot place additional restrictions on those summative ratings.

Second, under ESSA, a state’s “system of meaningfully differentiating” includes all aspects of a state’s accountability system: reporting, a rating (at the state’s discretion) and school identification. By reporting each subgroup’s performance on each indicator, including all students in their (optional) rating systems, and identifying schools based on subgroup performance—as all 50 states have promised to do in their ESSA plans— states are certainly meeting the statutory requirement that their systems be “based on all indicators … for each subgroup.”

There are also several robust policy reasons that a state might opt to take a different approach to holding schools accountable for subgroup performance. For example, some states incorporate the growth the lowest performing 25 percent of students into their school ratings. Emphasizing the bottom 25 percent ensures that schools focus on the students who need the most support, and traditionally underserved subgroups are, unfortunately, overrepresented in that lowest performing 25 percent group.

School Identification

ESSA also requires that states identify: (a) schools with subgroups that are “consistently underperforming, as determined by the state” as targeted support schools; and (b) schools with subgroups as low-performing as the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state as additional targeted support schools. See 20 USC 1111(c)(4)(C)(iii) and 1111(d)(2)(D).

While some states have opted to use the same criteria for identifying schools for both targeted support definitions, all states are using subgroup performance for identification. There has been push back against this approach, arguing that the law requires two separate categories of schools.  However, because the law allows states to define “consistently underperforming” subgroups, the law could reasonably be interpreted to allow states to define this term as those subgroups performing as poorly as the bottom 5 percent of schools.

From a policy perspective, whether combining these two groups of schools causes states to not identify some schools that have underperforming subgroups, is an open question. Most states did not include impact data in their ESSA plans, so we do not yet know how many schools will be identified if states target only those schools with subgroups performing as poorly as the bottom 5 percent of schools in that state. It’s quite possible that some states will find, sadly, that applying those criteria, alone, leads to the identification of more schools than the state and its districts can adequately serve. It’s also possible that the use of this criteria results in the identification of just a small handful of schools, which would suggest that the state should consider adjusting its criteria for targeted support schools.

The Bottom Line

Neither states nor organizations—like ExcelinEd—that care deeply about closing the achievement gap and equity more broadly, can or should solely rely on ESSA’s provisions to dictate the right approach to accountability. ESSA puts the ball in states’ courts, and each state must design an accountability system that motivates its districts, schools and educators to meet the needs of their unique student populations, especially those from traditionally underserved subgroups.

About the author

Claire Voorhees

Claire is the National Director of Policy. Previously, Claire worked at HCM Strategists where she provided clients with strategic advice on new approaches to education reform. Claire was also an instructor at Koç University in Istanbul, teaching a comparative course on education rights and policies in the U.S. and Turkey. Before spending time in Turkey, Claire was an associate at Hogan Lovells law firm and served as an associate director in the White House Domestic Policy Council where she assisted senior staff in shaping the Administration’s education policies. Claire began her career as a fourth grade teacher at P.S. 43 in the South Bronx, New York. A native of Washington, D.C., Claire earned a bachelor’s degree from Duke University, a master of science in elementary education from Mercy College, a master of public policy from Georgetown University Public Policy Institute, and a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center.