CA ESSA Plan Finally Nears Approval, But State Still Not Doing Enough For Disadvantaged Students

The California State Board of Education’s long road toward compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) may finally be reaching its conclusion, but critics say the state is still doing far too little to address the needs of our state’s most disadvantaged and low-performing students.

“After two years of stalling and multiple rejected plans, California has finally figured out a way to comply with President Obama’s signature education legislation,” wrote Bill Lucia, President of education advocacy group EdVoice. “The Sacramento education bureaucracy apparently has little sense of urgency for large achievement gaps and the more than three million students unable to read and write at grade level. With the ink barely dry, it remains to be seen if this is truly the final plan, or if the State Board of Education will now turn around and ask for waivers from ensuring extra federal funding is actually used to help disadvantaged students and their teachers.”

The state’s plan was revised again over the last month after the U.S.  Department of Education raised more questions in June and delayed approval of the plan for the third time in six months. The latest proposal must still be approved for submission when the Board meets Wednesday and Thursday. Then it will fall under federal scrutiny once again, but early signs appear to be positive.

Last Friday, the California BOE received a letter from Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Botel: “Our review has concluded that the June 25, 2018 draft of the plan appears to meet all applicable statutory and regulatory requirements. If California formally submits the draft as its final consolidated State plan, I intend to recommend that Secretary [Betsy] DeVos approve the plan.”

ESSA is the federal law that replaced for No Child Left Behind. It was designed to direct states to identify and assist the nation’s lowest-performing schools. All schools are required to submit a plan for compliance and have it approved in time for the 2018-19 academic year.

California first submitted its proposal in September of 2017, but in December the federal government rejected the plan, declaring it incomplete. The state then submitted revisions in January but was immediately criticized for submitting a plan that was largely unchanged from its original version and for the state’s insistence on continuing to use its much-maligned California State Dashboard as a primary means for identification of low-performing schools. Predictably, the revised plan also failed to be approved.

Weeks of debate ensued, including meetings with federal officials in Washington, and on April 12 the Board unanimously approved its latest framework with hopes of finally meeting expectations.

Last month, however, California received a feedback letter from Botel that essentially said the revisions continued to fall short.  Still, there was a silver lining in that the majority of concerns raised by the federal government were largely issues of specifics including, “more specificity on time frames and goals for improving test scores, graduation rates and the progress of English Language Learners” as well as more detail regarding “how the state will use chronic absenteeism as a performance measure this year,” according to Alison Yin of EdSource.

One other hurdle has proven more difficult to clear. “Along with requiring states to identify the lowest performing 5 percent of schools –- a minimum of about 300 in California –- for more intensive assistance, the federal law requires identifying all schools in which any of a dozen student racial, ethnic or demographic groups is equally low performing,” according to EdSource. Because these additional schools would also be earmarked for assistance from districts, a total expected to number in the thousands, the state’s concern is the secondary group of schools could be “overwhelming.”

“All issues are solvable,“ Karen Stapf-Walters, the state board’s executive director, told EdSource after the most recent rejection.

While that may finally prove true, California still stands as just one of six states –- along with Florida, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia –- with an ESSA plan that has not been approved. Should the state fail to meet the requirement by the start of school in the fall, California risks losing approximately $2.4 billion in federal aid for low-income students, teacher training and vital services for migrant and ELL students. 

Meanwhile, a separate but related issue is emerging in advance of the state’s two-day meeting this week. First up on the agenda is the issue of using student growth models as part of California’s accountability system. 

Speak UP supports the need to track and incorporate individual student growth data in measuring academic progress, particularly for low-income students, English Language Learners and other subgroups most in need of additional support. We urge California to adopt growth models as part of the accountability Dashboard. 

But early signs indicate that instead of embracing this model that's already used successfully in more than 40 other states, the State Board of Education intends to delay, or worse, scrap the idea entirely.

In anticipation of the looming decision, Speak UP joined nearly 40 other advocacy, parent and education groups in signing a support letter sent Friday to Board President Michael W. Kirst “encouraging the State Board of Education to adopt a student growth indicator as part of the Dashboard and the state accountability system.”

Growth models are designed to continuously track individual student achievement levels and are vital tools needed to “address long-standing inequities and offer every student an excellent education that prepares them for college, career and civic life.” 

The letter goes on to note the shortcomings of relying solely on the Dashboard’s current measures of “Status” and “Change.”

“Status is often a function of demographics, and Change fails to consider how individual students have progressed. In many cases, a Change measure can be wholly misleading, because it does not follow a common student cohort or control for fluctuations in school enrollment or demographics,” notes the letter spearheaded by The Education Trust-West and Teach Plus California. “Growth measures, on the other hand, tell us how much each individual student is learning and how much of that learning can be attributed to the school. Many researchers agree that growth is a superior measure for purposes of measuring how well schools are doing.”

The letter continues by providing a concrete example of how Dashboard data can be misleading and will often fall short in identifying the schools and districts most in need of assistance.

“Consider two schools that are very low performing, both earning Red ratings in English language arts and math on the Dashboard. Both of those schools might be identified for assistance under the current system. Now suppose that in one of those schools, students are growing at a much faster rate than the state average — the school may still be Red, but students who started far below grade level are starting to catch up to grade level standards. In the other school, students are falling behind — perhaps gaining only 6 months of learning over the course of a 9-month school year. Clearly, those two schools require different kinds of assistance. Without growth data, we will be ill-suited to appropriately differentiate support.”

The Board, in a memo released with this week’s agenda, has expressed concerns that the use of growth measures can be complicated and confusing. But its foot-dragging on both ESSA compliance and student growth measures seems to speak more to a reluctance to support real accountability and transparency.

The state’s potential failure to urgently embrace growth measures leaves us wondering how dedicated California is to putting students first. 

--Michael Sweeney