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School Accountability Under ESSA

• Patricia Levesque


This is the first installment in a series by ExcelinEd CEO Patricia Levesque, designed to give states guidance on how they can use the Every Student Succeeds Act to advance student achievement.

With the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states continue to face the challenge and opportunity of designing school accountability systems focused on improving student learning.

Even though the Foundation for Excellence in Education is ten years young, some of us have been working on state accountability systems for most of our professional careers. We’ve seen the good, the bad, the ugly, the unintended consequences and the double-edged sword of tough-love models. Over the next few weeks, we will share some lessons that may help as states develop and finalize their accountability calculations.

We do not believe there is a single, perfect calculation, although we have some strongly held fundamental principles for accountability. Often, state context, capability and politics come into play in the finishing touches of any accountability system. But we do believe that common sense and an understanding of potential unintended consequences can help inform state policy work.

In this first installment, we focus on simplicity.

Accountability need not be complicated. In fact, the simpler it is, the better it works.

We recommend that states step back from the fine details of their state accountability systems and ask what is my accountability system asking classroom teachers to do, or what will a district or school administrator ask a teacher to do “in the name of” the accountability system?

We believe accountability systems should focus teachers on three basic outcomes.

  1. Help all students achieve proficiency or better in the core subjects. Proficiency should be defined as the knowledge necessary for success in college or a meaningful career. States determine their own proficiency expectations and we encourage them not to short-shrift their students by dumbing down expectations to create the illusion of success. A good rule of thumb on state’s proficiency goals is to compare the percent of 4th or 8th graders a state identifies as proficient on state reading and math tests with the percent identified as proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. If the gap between these two numbers is in the double digits, your state may have too low a proficiency expectation.
  2. Help all students make progress from one year to the next. Teachers cannot control the level of performance of students who enter their classrooms, but they should be able to move all their students forward from where they entered the school year. States should set measures of growth to proficient and advanced achievement that will ensure below grade level students achieve proficiency within a reasonable period of time and also keep proficient students moving toward an advanced level.
  3. Pay extra attention to any student in a class who is among the most at-risk of being left behind. One way to codify this in an accountability formula is to focus on the learning gains of the school’s lowest performing quartile students in addition to the learning gains of all students. Every school has a lowest performing quartile. And every school should focus on ensuring these kids are not forgotten, but rather are the ones who get the most attention. Florida has demonstrated that this focus on struggling students does not diminish the gains of high achievers.

If a school accountability system distracts teachers by asking them to juggle too many measures, it takes time away from their focus on the three core measures but also all the intangibles great teachers bring into the classroom that can’t be measured, such as their ability to connect with and inspire students.

Of course, in high school, there are other critical outcome measures such as graduation rates and success in college credit or industry credentials, but the three basics still apply.

If schools are succeeding on these three measures, then obviously they are doing their job well. And if they are not, then states should have adequate intervention policies in place to turn them around.

We believe this is the best approach for keeping accountability simple, educators on task and parents better informed.

For more resources and information concerning the Every Student Succeeds Act, visit ExcelinEd’s Policy Library.

About the author

Patricia Levesque @levesquepat

Patricia is the Chief Executive Officer for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. She served as Governor Jeb Bush’s deputy chief of staff for education, enterprise solutions for government, minority procurement, and business and professional regulation. Previously, Patricia served six years in the Florida Legislature in the Speakers Office and as staff director over education policy. Contact Patricia at