Monty Neill of FairTest Comments on ESSA Rules: You Can, Too

The rule-making process for the implementation of the new, federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is a little deep into the policy weeds for most readers of this blog.  But until August 1, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education is accepting public comments on the rules it has proposed, and some organizations with the expertise carefully to analyze the law itself and the Department’s proposed rules have been drafting and submitting comments.  FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has submitted a formal comment, and yesterday Valerie Strauss published in the Washington Post an explanation from Monty Neill, the organization’s executive director, about concerns at FairTest about ESSA.

Monty Neill is very familiar with the federal education law’s accountability philosophy and provisions.  In his piece yesterday in the Washington Post, he shares concerns about the rules now drafted by Secretary John King’s Department of Education, rules that will govern enforcement of school accountability. Overall Neill believes that the Obama administration’s Department of Education has proposed rules that yield too much power back to the federal government and undermine the ways in which Congress tried to return power to states for school accountability in the new law.  And test-and-punish accountability is far too prominent in the proposed rules.

Neill writes, “While the accountability provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) are superior to those of No Child Left Behind, the Department of Education’s draft regulations intensify ESSA’s worst aspects and will have the effect of perpetuating some of NCLB’s most damaging practices. The draft regulations over-emphasize testing, mandate punishments not required in law, and continue federal micromanagement. When the department makes decisions that should be set at the state and local level in partnership with local educators, parents, and students, it takes away local voices that ESSA restores.”  In his Washington Post column, Neill names five provisions in the draft rules that he believes need to be eliminated or amended.  I agree with Neill’s concerns, but I am reordering a bit as a way to indicate my own concerns about their importance.

  1. The proposed rules require (according to Neill’s third concern) that states come up with performance indicators for their schools and… combine the multiple indicators each state selects into a “single ‘summative’ score for each school.”  Neill writes: “As Rep. John Kline, chair of the House Education Committee pointed out, no such requirement is included in ESSA.  Summative scores are simplistically reductive and opaque. They encourage the sort of flawed school grading schemes promoted by diehard NCLB defenders.”  I will add my own concern here.  Congress, under much pressure from teachers and other supporters of public school improvement, left room for states to include some indicators of unequal opportunity-to-learn—disparities in resource inputs, not just test score outcomes. The requirement in the proposed rules demands that while states can choose indicators by which they judge school quality, they must, before they submit the rating, combine all the indicators into school-by-school “grades.”  Those overall “grades” will very likely mirror the current school grades (based merely on test scores) being awarded by too many states today.
  2. The law requires that states continue to identify the lowest scoring 5 percent of schools and the schools whose subgroups of students continue to test poorly.  The proposed rules (and here is Neill’s second concern) require states also to identify three or more levels of performance to differentiate the performance of schools across the state.  FairTest proposes that the regulations should scrap any reference to performance levels and allow states themselves to decide how to identify low-performing schools.
  3. For Neill, the top concern is the the proposed rules’ limitation of parents’ right to protest by opting their children out of testing. (I have moved it to third place.)  Here is how Neill describes his concern: “Most egregiously, the department would require states to lower the ranking of any school that does not test 95 percent of its students or to identify it as needing ‘targeted support.’  No such mandate exists in ESSA.”  Neill recommends that, “The department should simply restate ESSA’s language allowing the right to opt out as well as its requirements that states test 95 percent of students in identified grades and factor low participation rates into their accountability systems.”
  4. In the new rules, the Department of Education requires that a state’s academic indicators for accountability carry “much greater” weight than its “school quality” indicators (Neill’s fourth concern).  Neill recommends that the department leave the language of the law in place—that academic indicators count for more than (not much more than) 50 percent of a state’s school quality indicators.  Personally, I would like to see school quality indicators given perhaps additional weight, though that would depend on what school quality indicators are being used.  Ideally the federal government would be pressuring the states to invest in the poorest schools for equity and thereby improve the quality indicators in the poorest schools, but Congress itself, as it wrote the new ESSA, neglected to use the law as an opportunity to create incentives to promote states’ investments for equity.
  5. Finally  the implementation time line for accountability seems short (Neill’s fifth concern): “The department would require states to use 2016-17 data to select schools for ‘support and improvement’ in 2017-2018.  This leaves states barely a year for implementation, too little time to overhaul accountability systems.” Remember that the new law assigns to the states the responsibility for creating improvement plans for schools that struggle.

Although this all may seem overly technical, reading Neill’s concerns helps clarify at least some of the ways that ESSA remains, on the whole, a test-and-punish accountability law. While ideally states would find ways to invest in, improve, and support the schools in the poorest communities, the places where test scores—the primary measurement states will continue to use—are lowest, the danger is that states will continue to punish teachers and close and charterize so-called “failing” schools across America’s big city neighborhoods where poverty is concentrated.

You can submit your own comments to the U.S. Department of Education until August 1. Neill provides the instructions here: “The regulations are at https://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=ED-2016-OESE-0032-0001.  To submit comments on the regulations, go to https://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=ED-2016-OESE-0032.  FairTest even has a sample action alert response that you may copy and paste in to the Department’s comment form if you want to simply support FairTest’s comments.