Still Accountable

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The following op-ed was cross-posted from U.S. News and World Report

By Catherine E. Brown

On March 9, the Senate struck down the sensible, widely supported accountability regulations that would have provided states with clear guidance about how to interpret the complex provisions in the law. The Department of Education may not issue new regulations that are “substantially similar” to the previous administration’s, so states are now left to interpret the legislative language on their own as they establish new systems for identifying and improving schools.

It’s a shame that the regulations were struck down because the situation may cause chaos and delay implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. But this senseless act in no way nullifies the accountability provisions in the law. States may be left to their own devices to understand what is required of them, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is still required of them.

So, what’s in the law?

First, states must continue to annually test all students in grades 3 to 8 and once in high school, to disaggregate the results by subgroup and to publicly report the results. This provision has been the cornerstone of our national accountability framework since 2001, and it is unchanged in the Every Student Succeeds Act. Also, as was the case under the act’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, schools must assess 95 percent of all students.

Second, states must develop a means for rating schools. They can use several approaches, such as an index, a matrix or a set of decision rules, but somehow they must analyze the data and use it to sort all the schools in the state into three categories: 1) the lowest performing 5 percent, including high schools where less than two-thirds of students graduate; 2) schools with consistently underperforming or low-performing subgroups; and 3) all others.

To determine these ratings, schools must look at test scores, English language proficiency, high school graduation rates, another indicator of student learning and at least one indicator of school quality or student success, which can be nonacademic, such as chronic absenteeism. All told, states must assign greater weight to the academic indicators than the nonacademic measures in their school classification systems. They also must select factors that can be disaggregated by subgroup.

Third, the law goes much further than simply requiring states to rate schools every year. They also must use evidence-based interventions to improve the schools most in need. The Every Student Succeeds Act defines four tiers of evidence-based interventions. Interventions in the highest tier are supported by randomized control studies. Those in the second tier are supported by quasi-experimental studies. Third-tier interventions are supported by correlational studies, and those in the lowest tier have a logical theory of action. States may only use interventions supported by evidence from the first three tiers that had a positive and statistically significant effect on the desired outcome for school improvement funds. These provisions apply to interventions used by schools identified as in need of comprehensive support – the bottom 5 percent – as well as all activities funded by school improvement funds allocated by the law. This important provision will help ensure that federal funds aimed at improving low-performing schools are well spent on interventions with a record of success improving student outcomes.

 Some might assume that, under a Trump administration, the Department of Education may not be vigilant in ensuring that the law is enforced and therefore states can disregard what is required of them. But the department isn’t the only entity that will be reviewing state plans, monitoring whether they are in compliance with the law and holding states and the department accountable. The Center for American Progress and other research and advocacy organizations, the media and Democrats in Congress charged with oversight of the Department of Education will be undertaking extensive reviews of state plans to assess whether they include the provisions described above, and more. We will also be monitoring implementation to ensure that states implement their school identification and improvement systems with fidelity to what they lay out in their plans.

It took eight years for Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. When Congress finally succeeded, it was with wide bipartisan support. Changes at this point would be met with resistance from both sides of the aisle. The better path is for states to abide by the agreement and give it time to let the law work.
Catherine Brown is the vice president of Education Policy at the Center for American Progress. Previously, Brown was vice president of policy at Teach for America, was policy adviser to senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and served as senior education policy adviser for the House Committee on Education and Labor. Follow her on Twitter at @catbrown66 and CAP’s Education Policy Team at @EdProgress.