Opinion: The Essence of ESSA: the Good, the Bad, the Meh

Laura Waters | August 11, 2017 | Opinion
A wonk-free assessment of the Every Student Succeeds Act and how it can refocus discussions about New Jersey schools onto more accurate rankings of quality and achievement

Laura Waters
When my husband Dennis and I were getting ready to move to New Jersey 25 years ago, we had three criteria for location: affordability, within a not-too-unbearable commute to New York City (where he worked and my extended family lived), and, most importantly, a home in a school district that offered a solid education for our (soon-to-be) four children.

We knew how much money we had. We knew how to read the NJ Transit train schedule. But we didn’t know how to gauge school quality, besides hearsay from neighbors and friends. We ended up in an inner-ring suburb of Trenton called Lawrence Township (Mercer County) and count ourselves lucky that our kids had access to good schools.

But luck shouldn’t be a factor when parents assess school quality. Instead, that information should be clear, free of jargon, and readily available. A high bar for bureaucrats, perhaps, but high stakes for parents.

Measuring school quality

This emphasis on clarity is part of the newly authorized federal education law called Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). While ESSA has a host of purposes like educational equity, high standards, and requiring states to call out their lowest-performing districts, it’s also supposed to help parents like us determine school quality. New Jersey just had its ESSA plan approved by the feds and so here is my take (and an oath to repress my habitual wonkiness) on the highs and lows of the ways New Jersey intends to measure school quality and communicate those results to real people.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first, for those who protest that states should be left on their own and claim that ESSA, while far less toothy than No Child Left Behind (its earlier permutation), neuters our lust for local control. New Jersey’s schools are great, right? Sure, we may have “staggering” achievement gaps but we also have a 90 percent high school graduation rate! Leave us alone!

From NJ’s ESSA plan:

“Fewer than half of New Jersey students who take the SAT meet the college readiness benchmark, the number mathematically shown to equate with likely success in college courses. Moreover, approximately 70 percent of New Jersey students who matriculate at the state’s community colleges and 32 percent of students entering New Jersey’s public four year colleges are placed in remedial classes.”

Don’t take it personally, New Jersey: this is a nationwide trend. A recent Hechinger analysis notes that more than half a million students a year have to take noncredit-bearing remedial courses in college because “students are getting out of high school without the skills they need to succeed in college.” Those remedial courses, by the way, cost parents, students, and taxpayers $7 billion a year. And that’s not the only cost: Hechinger notes that “research has shown that students who enroll in these remedial courses often never even make it into the classes that will count toward a degree.”

ESSA assessed

We have an explanation: for too long we’ve hidden inadequacies behind obsolete course content and assessments (recently remedied by our slightly-tweaked version of the Common Core and newly aligned tests). But we have no excuse. In order to adequately prepare our children for college and/or careers, our schools have to do better. One way to get better is to not hide behind averages (90 percent graduation rate!), acknowledge the problems that force 70 percent of community college students to waste time and money learning material they should have mastered in their K-12 schools, design a plan, and keep the public well-informed about school quality. That’s ESSA.

But most parents just want to know how the state will measure student progress and how we’ll know how our schools are progressing. So let’s grade NJ’s ESSA plan and, as promised, I’ll stifle assessments of our n-sizes (awesomely small!), use of SGP’s (super!), and provisions for Title 1 money (meh). Hey, I’m trying.

First, New Jersey plans to continue looking at students’ scores on standardized tests, but that will no longer be the biggest factor in a school’s overall rating. We’ll also look at how much students are growing from year to year. That growth measurement will count more than the overall grade (40 percent), with test scores — or, more specifically, how many students are passing core subjects — coming in at a close second (30 percent). That’s commendable: we don’t want high-achieving students to rest on their laurels nor for schools to ignore them, and we do want students from challenging circumstances — poverty, disability, new English speakers — to move forward each year. Bellwether’s review of available state ESSA drafts praises New Jersey’s plan to double-count groups of students who are traditionally left behind: “By double-counting its student subgroups, New Jersey is attempting to ensure that schools prioritize the needs of all students.” Bellwether also likes our “statistically sophisticated accountability system built on rigorous college and career-ready standards.”

Basing our system on skills kids will need in college and how much schools are helping students grow will give parents confidence that the school’s overall rating actually means something. It’s not just another way to identify rich schools and poor schools, but it actually tells us something about what’s happening inside the classrooms.

Focus on English language learners

If I’m a parent who is not a native English language speaker, then I’d be gratified that our plan includes a strong focus on English language learners: 20 percent of a school’s rating will be driven by this particular demographic. This makes sense because 70,000 New Jersey students didn’t learn English as their first language, a 30 percent growth since 2010. Families will also likely cheer our ambitious targets for 2030 (95 percent graduation rates and 80 percent math proficiency, currently 41.9 percent), as well as the use of chronic absenteeism as a measure of school climate.

But families may still be troubled by parts of our plan. For example, New Jersey will rate schools on a three-part scale: “Below Target,” “Meets Target,” and “Exceeds Target.” To me this has the virtue of intuitiveness but the sin of imprecision. How about a little more granularity? The Fordham Foundation says that “this model fails to convey immediately to all observers how well a given school is performing,” which is, after all, one of the most important aspects of ESSA. And those labels are not absolute but just a comparison. They simply mean that a school is performing better than others with similar students. If I’m a parent in a traditionally low-performing school district, I want to gauge school quality compared to statewide achievement and growth.

ESSA requires that states intervene when schools underperform, but that’s where federal oversight stops and states’ rights take over. (Thanks ever so much, Tea Party and teacher union leaders.) New Jersey has chosen to divide schools into three groups: “Most Intensive Level of Support,” “Middle Level of Support,” and “Support for All Students.” The first group of schools is the bottom 5 percent and thus subject to a variety of interventions. If those interventions work, then the school gets off that list. If they don’t work, then the state can intervene in more invasive ways. But, as Bellwether points out, “under this approach, a school could exit improvement status simply by other schools getting worse, and not the school itself improving, let alone demonstrating a sustained trajectory of improved performance.”

New Jersey is moving toward an honest assessment of school quality and has ambitious goals for improvement. But, like my quest for nonwonkery, we can do better. The final test is this: will our ESSA plan help new parents like me and my husband figure out where is the best school district that we can afford to move to? We just barely meet our target.

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