- Michael Pollan
With the passage of the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, there was great hope among educators that we could make the major course correction that was needed. Clearly, there is much to like with ESSA, in particular, returning significant authority for schools back to the states. Troubling signs remain that the Department of Education continues to legislate through regulations beyond the authority provided in the law, but this legislation represents a very positive reversal of the federal overreach represented in NCLB.
It remains to be seen what states will do with this regained authority. Will they rethink blame-and-shame approaches to school accountability? Or will the same thinking continue under state, rather than federal authority? In Washington, a very broad-based planning process has been implemented by State Superintendent Randy Dorn in which over 300 people have been involved on 13 planning committees. They have been tasked with developing proposals for inclusion in the state’s accountability plan, but Superintendent Dorn will ultimately make the final decisions before submitting our state plan.
One of those ESSA subcommittees, the Accountability System Workgroup (ASW), was tasked with developing proposals for new accountability measures not already required under state law. At a minimum, ESSA requires a non-academic indicator to be added for all schools. The 40 members of that committee represent a wide variety of organizations with divergent perspectives regarding Washington’s public schools. Over the past seven months they proposed nearly 50 new accountability measures for our schools.
Using the consensus voting model adopted by OSPI for this planning process, two of those recommended indicators will be forwarded for consideration by the Consolidated Plan Team. The two newly proposed indicators put forth by the ASW are: 1) 9th Graders on Track for Graduation, and 2) Chronic Absence Rates. The metric for the first is yet to be developed, but for the second one, it’s the percent of students with 18 or more absences. That number was selected because of the research that shows that students’ chances of success decline significantly when 10% or more of the school year is missed.
During our ASW discussions, I shared the criteria I would use when voting for each proposed accountability indicator. The criteria are based on the notion that fairness is a fundamental requirement of any effective school accountability provision. One needn’t look any farther than NCLB to see what happens when an unfair accountability system is imposed on schools. The fairness criteria that guided my votes were as follows:
Do all schools, regardless of context (size, rural/urban, wealthy/poor, etc.)., have an equal opportunity to perform well on the indicator?
Do schools have control of the significant factors that lead to success with the indicator?
Are the costs of success on the indicator and reporting about it fully funded by the state?
Based on those criteria, I voted in favor of adding 9th Graders on Track for graduation and against Chronic Absentee Rates. In my opinion, that absence indicator violates all three elements of the fairness criteria. In considering control, student absences are mostly driven by parent or student decisions and are largely outside the control of school staff. Regarding costs, during our deliberations, examples of successful school programs that improved attendance rates were shared. None of these programs are state-funded, however, and not all districts have the same capacity in local levy funding to provide such support.
Regarding the context criteria, the following charts highlight that issue. The scatter chart in Figure 1 demonstrates a context variable which doesn’t appear to impact chronic absences. It shows the relationship between chronic absences and district enrollment. Each of the dots places a district in the matrix based on its enrollment and its chronic absence rate. The red trend line near the bottom demonstrates the relationship between the two variables. Both the horizontal nature of the line and the correlation (R2 = 0.0002) demonstrate the absence of a relationship between the variables. Based on this data, one can assume that district size makes no difference in chronic absence rates.
As we near the finish line with the development of our state’s ESSA Accountability Plan, my hope is that we will let go of the failed strategies of NCLB and implement a system that fairly measures our schools’ performance. The fairness criteria I’ve shared is one way of achieving that goal, but it remains to be seen if our adopted plan will honor these fairness principles.