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.

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Advocates and National Organizations Are Questioning Test-and-Punish School Accountability

Suddenly for the first time in years, there is considerable talk about reforming federal policy in education.  Yesterday this blog reviewed the way federal education policy has become stuck and discussed an academic paper that seems to have stimulated new thinking by a number of education advocacy and civil rights organizations.  Today, the blog will share two new policy statements from prominent civil rights and education policy organizations and review growing protests against the standardized testing that has—due to growing federal and state accountability requirements—come to dominate our public schools.

As this blog described yesterday, in an academic paper published in August, Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm, Linda Darling-Hammond and Gene Wilhoit propose that federal law stop merely blaming teachers and punishing the public schools in the poorest communities when, as we all surely know, there is massive inequity of investment by states and wide variance across school districts in their capacity to raise revenue locally.   A just society, Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit suggest, should be reciprocally accountable for investing significantly in the public schools that serve our society’s most vulnerable children– addressing gaps in opportunity as a primary way to address gaps in school achievement.

Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit’s paper seems to have united commitment across national advocacy organizations around the concept of reciprocal accountability.  First eleven of the nation’s most prominent civil rights organizations sent a joint letter to President Obama, Secretary Duncan and Congressional leaders, a letter that echoes the proposals in the paper published by Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit.  Last week this blog covered the new civil rights letter here. The civil rights organizations are Advancement Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, League of United Latin American Citizens, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, National Urban League, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Council on Educating Black Children, National Indian Education Association, and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.  Their statement disdains “overly punitive accountability systems that do not take into account the resources, geography, student population, and needs of specific schools.  In particular, the No Child Left Behind law has not accomplished its intended goals of substantially expanding educational equity or significantly improving educational outcomes.  Racial achievement and opportunity gaps remain large.”  These organizations advocate that accountability should measure resource inputs and support the academic, social, emotional, physical health, and cultural well-being of students.

Then seventeen national organizations—including some of the same civil rights groups along with a number of national educational organizations released New Accountability: A New Social Compact for American Education, a document that supports the idea of reciprocal accountability.  Sponsors are American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American Youth Policy Forum, Albert Shanker Institute, Alliance for Quality Education, Committee for Economic Development, Center for Teaching Quality, Education Law Center, Institute for Educational Leadership/Coalition for Community Schools, League of United Latin American Citizens, National Association for Bilingual Education, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Education Association, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, National School Boards Association, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.  The new “social compact” declares: “Accountability in American education must focus both on gathering complete information on the performance of students, educators, schools and districts, and on providing the feedback, resources and supports necessary for their improvement.  A fundamental paradigm shift in our accountability regime will be required, as the failed approach of ‘test and punish‘ is replaced with a strategy of ‘support and improve.'” “Genuine accountability rests on shared responsibility for educational outcomes.  All of the institutions participating in American education—from the federal government, state governments and higher education to school boards, school districts and schools—must be accountable for the contributions each must make to ensure high-quality learning opportunities for every child. Government must be accountable for equitably allocating adequate resources—dollars, curriculum and learning tools, well-qualified educators, and safe healthy environments for learning—to meet student needs and support meaningful learning.”  You are invited to join the authors of the Social Compact for American Education by signing on.

Finally, there is growing conversation about the tests themselves.  Darling-Hammond and Wilhoit’s academic paper also addresses this issue at length and declares: “If meaningful learning for all students is the focus of an accountability system, the system should use a range of measures that encourage and reflect such learning, and it should use those measures in ways that improve, rather than limit, educational opportunities for students.  This means we need both much better assessments of learning—representing much more authentically the skills and abilities we want students to develop—and multiple measures of how students, educators, schools, districts, and states are performing.”

The problem is not merely the quality of the tests, however.  An enormous concern is the amount and frequency of testing.  Sixteen superintendents of large, county-wide school districts recommend that the U.S. Department of Education, even in the waivers it is offering from NCLB’s failed policies, reduce the time and energy being devoted in America’s classrooms to testing by substituting grade-span testing instead of annual testing.  They are suggesting that federally required standardized tests be reduced from seven (grades 3-8 and once in high school) to three times (once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school).

Last week Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing was featured as a guest columnist by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post: “Across the nation, resistance to test overuse and misuse reached unprecedented heights in the spring of 2014.  The rapidly growing movement built on significant test opposition unleashed in 2013.  This year, resistance erupted in more states with far more participants, and it won notable victories such as ending, lessening or postponing graduation exams in at least eight states and easing or ending grade promotion tests.”  He describes a growing opt-out movement among parents and adds, “School boards are also resisting test overkill.  In New York, about 20 districts refused to administer tests used for the sole purpose of trying out items for next year’s state exams.”

Neill remains sober about the amount of work still needed to grow such actions, however.  “The ultimate goals of the movement are to dramatically reduce the amount of testing, end high stakes uses, and implement educationally sound assessments.  Progress has been made, but much more must be done.  To succeed, the movement must keep rapidly expanding while uniting across lines of race, class and where possible, politically ideology.  And it must turn its growing strength into greater victories.”