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#AskExcelinEd: How much weight do states’ school accountability systems give to academic outcomes?

• Claire Voorhees

This #AskExcelinEd series features our analysis of the nuts and bolts of the first 17 ESSA plans (16 states, plus Washington, D.C.) submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. Each week we will answer a different question about these plans to help the next 34 states learn from the strengths and weaknesses of the first round of plans.

Stay tuned for the next #AskExcelinEd series featuring innovation and next generation student learning.

Note: To date, 6 of the 17 plans have been approved by USED; the remaining 11 plans continue to evolve as those states incorporate feedback from the Department. This entry is accurate as of August 29.


ESSA State Plans


How much weight do states’ school accountability systems give to academic outcomes?

In the 17 submitted ESSA plans, states were tasked with describing how they would bring their accountability systems into compliance with the new federal education law by the 2017-18 school year. Under ESSA, states must evaluate their schools based on at least these four indicators:

  1. Academic achievement;
  2. Another academic indicator (growth and/or graduation rates);
  3. English Learner Language proficiency; and
  4. An indicator of school quality or student success.

However, states have flexibility to determine the weights assigned to each indicator.

In the wake of ESSA’s passage, there was concern at ExcelinEd—and many other organizations committed to rigorous accountability—that states would overemphasize non-academic outcomes, like attendance, student surveys and class participation rates, at the expense of academic outcomes such as student performance and growth in math and reading.

Click to enlarge the chart.

Fortunately, ExcelinEd’s review of the first 17 plans submitted to the U.S. Department of Education found that didn’t happen. Thanks to the hard work of advocates throughout the country and a commitment by policymakers in these states to keep accountability systems focused on student results, the news on indicators and their weights is positive in two respects:

  1. Fifteen states rightly weight student outcomes at least 75 percent of a K-8 school’s rating, and nine states plan to give at least 90 percent of their ratings to student outcomes. (For two states—Oregon and North Dakota—the weights of indicators are not explicitly provided or it’s unclear how the specified weights will factor into the accountability system.) This focus on student outcomes sets clear expectations for districts, schools and teachers to help all students make progress toward proficiency in all subjects so they are on a path to graduation and are prepared for success after high school. An accountability system based on student outcomes also leaves decisions on inputs—such as attendance, class size, classes offered and school environment—where they should be, with local district educators and policymakers. Furthermore, school accountability systems loaded with input measures dilute meager student outcomes, making it hard for parents to know whether their children are learning. Learn more.


  1. States have generally balanced the weight placed on proficiency and growth. Thirteen states weigh proficiency at or above 30 percent, and thirteen states (not all the same states) weight growth at or above 30 percent. Balancing proficiency and growth is essential within a school accountability system. Overweighting proficiency will systematically disadvantage schools populated with traditionally underserved students, providing these schools with little incentive to help all students improve. On the other hand, if the system over-weights growth, then schools serving students who have already achieved proficiency could earn a lower rating than schools with primarily low-performing students. Such a system would quickly lose credibility. Balancing proficiency and growth, as most of the first 17 states have, provides appropriate incentive to every school to help all students improve while remaining focused on the goal of ensuring these students graduate prepared for success after high school. Learn more.

As policymakers in the next 34 states finalize their ESSA plans, they should consider the example set by the states that have prioritized student outcomes and appropriately balance proficiency and growth within their accountability systems.

Have another question or need ESSA-related resources? Let us know!

Previous Posts in This Series:

Additional Resources:

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.