The U.S. Department of Education issued final regulations this week for its implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, modifying some of its proposed regulations released in May in response to public comment. 

TCTA, along with 21,608 others, submitted comments on the 192-page controversial and comprehensive set of rules, protesting, among other things, the proposal to require states to issue a single summative accountability rating to schools and school districts. TCTA asserted that ESSA did not require summative accountability ratings, and that such a requirement implicitly encourages controversial school accountability measures such as A-F school grading systems. 

USDE initially justified such a proposal based on the fact that ESSA requires states to identify at least three statewide categories of schools (comprehensive support and improvement, targeted support and improvement schools, and those not identified for comprehensive or targeted support and improvement), thus necessitating summative accountability ratings.  However, in response to pushback from a large number of commenters on the proposal, USDE changed the final regulations to provide states with more flexibility in meeting ESSA’s requirements by providing that a state's accountability system of annual meaningful differentiation must produce a single summative “determination” from among at least three categories, based on all of the accountability indicators.

USDE explained that a state has discretion to assign a single grade or number or to develop some other mechanism, including one based on a data “dashboard,” for reaching a single summative determination. (Texas law provides that the state will implement an A-F grading system for schools in 2017-18; however, efforts by education groups to eliminate the requirement are expected during the upcoming legislative session.)

Another major issue in the proposed regulations that garnered a strong response from commenters and members of Congress was the requirement that states identify schools for improvement starting in 2017-18, which many commenters argued was too soon given the amount of time it would reasonably take most states to implement state accountability systems meeting ESSA’s requirements. Accordingly, USDE revised the final regulations to allow states to start identifying schools for improvement no later than the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.

Moving away from test-based accountability indicators

ESSA provides that states can adopt “not less than one indicator of school quality or student success that allows for meaningful differentiation in school performance,” which may include measures of student engagement, educator engagement, student access to and completion of advanced coursework, postsecondary readiness, school climate and safety, and any other indicator the state chooses that meets certain requirements. However, the proposed regulations required that any such indicator must be something that research has shown has contributed to student achievement or higher graduation rates. 

TCTA and others argued that such a requirement unnecessarily limited states’ ability to use something other than state assessment results, given that many indicators of school quality or student success, such as school climate or safety, may not be directly linked to academic achievement. Accordingly, USDE revised the final regulations to give states more flexibility in selecting indicators of school quality/student success by allowing such indicators if they are “supported by research that performance or improvement on such measures is likely to increase student learning.” TCTA has consistently advocated that, in order to give a more complete and accurate measure of school performance, the state accountability system should include a learning environment index comprising data points on the number/percentage of teachers with fewer than three years’ experience, rate of out-of-field teacher assignment, class sizes, number of class-size waivers by grade level, results of an educator engagement survey (the Texas Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning survey), and results of a school climate/safety survey.

Texas development of its state ESSA plan

ESSA requires that states must meaningfully consult with stakeholders, including teachers, principals, other school leaders, charter school leaders, specialized instructional support personnel, paraprofessionals, administrators, other staff, and parents in developing their state ESSA plan. In late October, the Texas Education Agency released an online survey offering parents, taxpayers and the general public an opportunity to provide input on the state’s ESSA plan. (The survey closed Nov. 18.) TCTA offered input, but urged TEA to form formal state-level stakeholder groups as well, to inform development of the state plan. Consequently, TCTA is participating in a state-level stakeholder group and will continue to maintain involvement in the process as the opportunity arises.

The fate of the final regulations remains unclear at this point, given that a new presidential administration will be taking office in January. Some insiders have speculated that the incoming Trump administration will take a more hands-off approach to accountability, and may change or completely eliminate the regulations.

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