Transition to ESSA Accountability System May Be Bumpy

Last Monday (Aug. 1) was an important day for two reasons: 1) it marked the expiration date for the accountability waivers to states granted by the U.S. Department of Education (USED); and 2) it marked the deadline for interested parties to file comments on the USED’s proposed rules on accountability and state plans under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The USED received more than 20,000 comments on its draft rules on accountability, which is  arguably the most controversial part of ESSA.

The WASB Government Relations team was among the thousands that prepared comments on the proposed rules; however, an unfortunate technology “glitch” prevented us from uploading the comments before the midnight Aug. 1 deadline. While the WASB’s comments are not officially part of the record, we do plan to share our comments with our members of Congress, and especially with Senator Tammy Baldwin and Congressmen Mark Pocan and Glenn Grothman, who sit on the respective Education committees, so they are aware of our concerns.

One strong concern we raised is that proposed rules require schools to be identified for improvement based on data from the 2016-17 school year. However, the ESSA (unlike the No Child Left Behind Act it replaced) was intended to return much of the decision making around accountability to states and local schools. Wisconsin, like many states, is still early in the process of consulting with stakeholders (including school boards) and the public regarding what that the accountability system should look like and decide what indicators of school quality and student success we will use, what weight that should attach to those indicators, and what will be the criteria and procedures for identifying schools. Like many other commenters, we urged USED to allow schools to first be identified for improvement in 2018-19, based on 2017-18 data. As presently proposed, the rules would mean that schools would be identified based on goals and expectations that are not yet in place and on data that the DPI may or may not be able to collect in 2016-17 in time to meet the USED’s proposed timeline.

WASB also expressed concerns that the proposed regulations are unnecessarily prescriptive in terms of specifying the components of the accountability system and, in so doing, does not follow the intent of Congress to allow states to have flexibility in designing accountability systems. The WASB argued those highly specific requirements improperly infringed on the power of states to decide on the right way to measure school performance and to establish timelines.

And, among other things, the WASB expressed concerns that amount of detail on school-level expenditures required by the proposed regulations goes well beyond the requirements of the statute, as does a proposed requirement that all schools use an October 1 student count date. We noted that the DPI does not currently collect school level information as detailed as what the proposed regulations require and that Wisconsin law already requires two student count dates. In support of our position we noted that there is no requirement in ESSA for either a single statewide reporting approach in the proposed rule or for prescribing a specific date on which the State and LEAs must count students (e.g., October 1).

Read more: NSBA Comments; DPI Comments; EdWeek coverage