CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Will West Virginia parents gain a clear view of West Virginia’s educational achievement from the Every Student Succeeds Act?
The federal program, which takes the place of No Child Left Behind, is meant to provide more flexibility for states while still being overseen by the U.S. Department of Education.
West Virginia’s submission, like many states’, received feedback last week from the federal agency, which wanted clarification and further development of some aspects of the plan.
But what should community members expect as they try to judge whether local schools are up to par?
“What we’re trying to do is making sure states are adhering to their responsibilities to identify low-performing schools and identifying what needs to happen to get them to improve. You have to have an accountability system in place,” said Adam Ezring, policy director for The Collaborative for Student Success, an education think tank.
“We are believers that accountability systems can drive real, meaningful improvement if they are strong accountability systems. Whether or not they are strong accountability systems is something that is to be determined across all of these states.”
The Collaborative for Student Success, in partnership with Bellwether Education Partners, assessed the proposals of all 50 states. The organizations sought out a diverse group of peer reviewers with a range of political viewpoints and backgrounds, asking them to review each state’s accountability plan.
Spoiler alert: The results, overall, produced the headline “Opportunity Wasted: Second-Round ESSA Plans Get Largely Lackluster Reviews From Independent Experts.”
“States largely squandered the opportunity to create strong, innovative education plans through the Every Student Succeeds Act,” the bipartisan group of independent reviewers found.
The report ranks aspects of state plans from a 1 on the low side, which indicates other states should avoid the practice, up to a 5 on the high side, which indicates a potential model for other states.
West Virginia’s rankings tend to be in the middle of the spectrum:
- a 3 on “plan components,”
- a 2 on “standards and assessments,”
- a 3 on whether accountability indicators ensure goals are met,
- a 2 on whether checks are in place to make sure all students receive a high-quality education,
- a 3 on identifying schools and student groups most in need,
- a 3 on whether the state provides evidence-based, rigorous plans to intervene with schools
- a 2 on whether schools that are identified as needing more help will demonstrate sustained improvements
- a 3 on whether the state outlines a clear plan for continuous improvement.
The state receives kudos, right off the bat, for its vision to change West Virginia’s economic landscape by significantly increasing the percentage of graduating students who are well-prepared for college and career.
“This is an admirable vision, and much of the state’s ESSA plan is designed to increase student achievement and readiness for life after high school,” according to the report.
The state also gets praise fro using systems called Lexile and Quantile to track progress in literacy and mathematics. This was an area where the U.S. Department of Education raised questions about how grade-level achievement would be assessed.
But Bellwether and the Collaborative for Student Success saw the approach as a positive.
“Aligning the state’s assessments with these frameworks enables West Virginia to assess student progress toward graduating ready for college and careers,” the organizations wrote.
Ezring, speaking in a telephone interview, said he understands where the U.S. Department of Education is coming from with its question, but he said West Virginia’s approach may be better in some ways.
“College and career expectation is sometimes better than a grade-level expectation,” he said. “From our standpoint it is usually a positive.”
“ESSA is pretty clear about the requirement of using grade-level efficiency. I get that the department wants to see the state demonstrate grade-level proficiency. That’s something the West Virginia department should be able to demonstrate. I hope that they do.”
West Virginia also gets credit from Bellwether and Collaborative for Student Success for including suspension and attendance rates in its accountability system. The indicator builds on West Virginia’s past work tracking attendance, behavior and credits, the analysts note.
“It has an established and successful early warning system that has helped it raise graduation rates to an all-time high,” the analysts wrote.
For schools that have been targeted for improvement, the analysts say it’s unclear what long-term progress would need to be demonstrated: “It’s not clear what level of improvement would be sufficient or if they would truly demonstrate sustained progress.
“West Virginia’s plan would be stronger if it provided greater front-end transparency for schools about what performance they would need to demonstrate.”
Another think tank, Fordham Institute, also assessed states’ Every Student Succeeds Act plans. Fordham says it focused more narrowly on accountability, resulting in a more positive assessment.
“One problem with reviewing everything in these plans—and a reason, we suspect, why neither report did—is that they’re basically big, complex compliance exercises,” Fordham wrote.
“They comprise lots of blather and paperwork that culminate in pretty words across many realms, words that often don’t amount to much. The trick, then, is to pluck, analyze, and evaluate the parts that do matter.
Fordham boiled its assessment down to whether state accountability plans achieved three objectives:
- Did they assign annual ratings to school that are clear and intuitive for parents, educators, and the public?
- Did they encourage schools to focus on all of their pupils, not just their low performers, by measuring achievement via average scale scores or a performance index, and by giving substantial weight to a measure of annual academic growth for all students?
- Did they fairly measure and judge all schools, including those with high rates of poverty, by basing ratings on how much students learn while in their classrooms, not on pupils’ performance level on the first day of class?
West Virginia did all right on making its ratings useful, Fordham concluded, by planning to use text labels as schools’ annual ratings. West Virginia did away with a planned A-F system for schools after Gov. Jim Justice took office.
“Although the proposed labels are easy to understand, in isolation each one fails to communicate how much better or worse a given school could do (it’s not instantly clear to a parent, for example, whether ‘distinguished’ is West Virginia’s best possible rating),” Fordham wrote.
“This model fails to convey immediately to all observers how well a given school is performing.”
On the question of whether ratings systems encourage schools to focus on all students, Fordham gave West Virginia a strong review.
The analysts said there are two main ways for state accountability systems to encourage schools to focus on all
students. The first is to use a performance index or scale scores in place of proficiency rates when measuring
achievement. The second is to measure the growth of all students.
The majority of West Virginia’s system is a balance of both, the analysts said.
“A performance index counts for 28 percent, which encourages schools to look beyond those pupils who are near
the cutoff for proficiency,” they wrote.
“And a measure of growth for all students constitutes another 28 percent of schools’ summative ratings, which should also lead schools to heed the educational needs of every child.
But West Virginia came up weak on a rating system that would be fair to all schools, including those with high rates of poverty. The analysts said the system West Virginia chose unfairly minimized academic growth, an area where high-poverty schools could be on a more even playing field.
“West Virginia gets a weak here because academic growth will constitute just 28 percent of schools’ annual ratings,” the Fordham analysts wrote.
“Growth measures gauge changes in pupil achievement over time, independent of prior achievement, and are therefore less correlated with poverty — thus affording high-poverty schools the opportunity to earn positive ratings. West Virginia’s approach will unfairly disadvantage high-poverty schools.”