When the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001, state education leaders hated the law’s mandate that every child in the country be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Unrealistic and demoralizing, they called it.
But now that states can set their own goals under the Every Student Succeeds Act—NCLB’s replacement—some are proposing to one-up the feds with even more ambitious timelines of their own.
Michigan, for example, which ranks academically in the bottom half of the pack nationally, wants to place in the top 10 in the next 10 years, according to the draft accountability plan it’s planning to submit to the U.S. Department of Education.
Maryland has proposed that schools cut big achievement gaps between white students and students of color in half in the next six years. And Hawaii wants to slash its 15 percent average absenteeism rate by more than a third by 2020.
The proposed goals have sparked clashes at ESSA town hall sessions and state board meetings between accountability hawks, those in the anti-testing movement, and teachers’ unions as state leaders attempt to strike a balance between rigorous and realistic in setting states’ short-term and long-term academic goals.
“This is probably one of the most tricky and most difficult thing to do under the new law,” said Kathy Cox, the former superintendent of Georgia, who has worked with states as a consultant in the last year to develop their ESSA plans. “You don’t want your goal to be so ambitious that it’s unrealistic, but you don’t want it to be so realistic that the pace is so gradual that people aren’t inspired. It’s about finding a delicate balance.”
ESSA plans are due no later than this September and are set to go into place with the 2017-18 school year. More than a dozen already have drafted plans for the public to consider.
The NCLB law set a 12-year deadline for states to achieve universal proficiency, with progress measured by the adequate yearly progress, or AYP, benchmark, which quickly wore out its welcome.
In contrast to the NCLB law, ESSA requires only that states set “ambitious” academic achievement, graduation rate, and English-language proficiency goals without setting specific deadlines. It’s arguably the area in which states have the most flexibility under the new law.
Statewide aspirations can have a trickle-down effect and impact the pace at which students are expected to comprehend lessons, how many schools are swept up in a state’s intervention system, and what initiatives a state funnels millions of public dollars toward, according to state officials.
In a number of states, department officials fear that if they set their goals too low, teachers and principals at average-performing schools will get complacent and allow for problem areas, such as long-standing achievement gaps, to fester.
They also worry that if they set their goals too high, they can spark the same cheating scandals at low-performing schools that landed scores of teachers in jail during the NCLB-era.
“Anybody with substantive knowledge about education and assessment knew that the NCLB goal was unobtainable, but rather than admitting that it was a fantasy, NCLB encouraged all sorts of gamesmanship and manipulation to give the appearance of progress when it was not taking place,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.
States see ESSA as an opportunity to hit the reset button and give school and district officials a road map to meet expectations for the next generation of students. In some states, that puts the goal line at 2030, when next school year’s kindergartners will graduate from high school.
Civil rights activists fear that goal-setting is a key area where states will avert their attention from poor students, students of color, and students with special needs who have historically fallen short on access to basic services but got a jolt of attention under NCLB.
“Too often, when we talk about the achievement gap, we talk about outcome for black students and other students as if it’s inevitable and natural and acceptable and that’s just the way things are,” said Liz King, the senior policy analyst and director of education policy for the Leadership Conference Education Fund. “We created these problems, and we can solve these problems.”
These tensions already are playing out in the ESSA planning process.
Maryland’s education department has proposed to reduce the amount of nonproficient students in the state by one half by the year 2030 as defined on that state’s standardized reading and math tests. And it wants to halve its achievement gaps within six years.
Bill Reinhard, the department spokesman said the goals were placed in the plan to “spark conversation” and could still be fine-tuned before being presented to the state board.
State officials are aware of the sensitivities in crafting goals.
“What becomes the ultimate question for state leaders is if you say 100 percent is not our goal, that there is some goal below 100 percent, what you’re saying is someone’s child is incapable of hitting proficiency,” said Andy Smarick, president of the Maryland school board. “There are real boys and girls with real names and real schools who are going to be implicated by any number that’s less than 100 percent.”
In response to testing anxiety, some states have, in addition to setting standardized achievement goals, set NAEP, ACT, and school climate goals. Tennessee, for example, wants to rank in the top half of states on NAEP by 2019, raise its average ACT score from 19 to 21 by 2020, and boost the proportion of 3rd graders reading at grade level from 43 percent to 75 percent by 2025.
States have plenty more data on which to base predictions than they had in 2001 when NCLB was created. Department officials have described spending countless hours in recent months pouring over spreadsheets to set new benchmarks. Raising statewide averages even a few percentage points, states have learned, is much harder than it looks. Adding to the problem, states like Michigan have had several sets of standards and tests in recent years due to the fallout over the common core.
In developing its ESSA plan, Michigan’s department is in the process of tying numeric goals to its “Top 10 in 10″ vision plan established in 2015 by state Superintendent Brian Whiston.
“It’s more of a motivating statement versus an empirical statement,” said Venessa A. Keesler, the state’s deputy superintendent.
For other states, trying to be both lofty and realistic has meant some difficult conversations about who’s to blame for lagging results and how to fix them.
Hawaii has long struggled with chronic absenteeism. Five years ago, it became one of the first states in the nation to incorporate absenteeism into its accountability system.
The state set a common definition, set aside money to reward students with perfect attendance records, and aired statewide commercials during which military generals told families about the importance of showing up to class on time.
But state officials soon realized that the reasons so many students failed to show up to school were complicated. Students in isolated areas of the islands often missed the school bus and lacked any other methods of transportation to get to school, and the state’s court system had a glut of truancy cases it couldn’t afford to streamline.
Today, the lowest absenteeism rate in the state for a school is 2 percent while the highest is 54 percent.
When coming up with its new goals under ESSA, the department originally suggested that its schools reduce absenteeism from an average of 15 percent to 13 percent, but a board member said the number needed to be in the single digits. The state’s goal is now 9 percent.
“We’ve had some hard conversations about whether or not this is the best indicator to reflect school performance,” said Tammi Chun, the state’s assistant superintendent for office of strategy innovation and performance. “Everyone agrees it’s an important area to focus on but, going forward, we realize a combination of actions are needed in order for us to meet these goals.”
Vol. 36, Issue 18, Pages 1, 21