US Department of Education Guides States on Academic Accountability

(Photo: Olivier Douliery, Getty Images)

(Photo: Olivier Douliery, Getty Images)

The U.S. Department of Education has released draft regulations to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which President Obama signed in December to steer the government’s approach to K-12 education. The guidelines will allow states to decide how to use a mix of test scores, academic growth, and other measures to identify failing schools and struggling students.

“These regulations give states the opportunity to work with all of their stakeholders, including parents and educators, to protect all students’ right to a high-quality education that prepares them for college and careers, including the most vulnerable students,” said Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. “They also give educators room to reclaim for all of their students the joy and promise of a well-rounded educational experience.”

According to Jennifer Kerr of the website The Big Story, a key provision of the law is shifting the responsibility back to states for how they educate their students, and another provision requires greater transparency with parents and communities about the performance qualities of their schools.

States will have to design their own accountability systems that consider measures of success beyond test scores and graduation rates. States may decide what kind of weight to give to various indicators of success such as school climate, chronic absenteeism, and parent surveys.

The Education Department is mandating that any evaluative measures must apply to all students, not just to those who are performing better. Specifically, states must account for “sub-groups of students,” such as racial minorities, students from low-income backgrounds, and special education students in the metrics that measure a school’s performance.

Under the proposed rules, states must identify failing schools at least once every three years. The ones considered to be of the greatest importance are those among the lowest-performing 5% of schools, high schools with graduation rates below 67%, and schools with chronically low-performing “sub-groups of students.” The government then requires that these states design their own restructuring to better these statistics. Accountability plans will have t be submitted to the Education Department for review by July 2017.

The new regulations, as reported by Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post, have sparked the newest episode of a battle between the Obama administration and its critics who accuse it of overstepping its authority on matters of education policy. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest union, said that she was disappointed with the regulations:

“Rather than listen to the outcry by parents and educators over hyper-testing, the department offers specific punitive consequences for when fewer than 95 percent of students participate in tests. This doesn’t solve the issue of the misuse of testing. It simply inflames the problem by suggesting punitive consequences for those who are so frustrated by the misuse and high-stakes nature of standardized testing that they want to opt their kids out.”

A 60-day comment period on the regulations ends August 1. For interested readers, a full breakdown of the regulations released by the Department of Education can be found online.