Saturday, February 3, 2018

California's Every Student Succeeds Plan Fails an Incredibly Low Standard: Are We Missing a Subversive Plot?

In full disclosure, I have not read California's state plan for complying with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  But if we assume that the Department of Education and the peer reviewers of the plan are minimally competent and fair, California's plan is shocking.  It went out of its way to not comply with ESSA.  This is no small task. The Department is now rejecting California's plan.

Putting aside the merits of the ESSA in general, it asks very little of the states--far less than No Child Left Behind asked for the prior decade and a half.  As I explain in Abandoning the Federal Role in Education: The Every Student Succeeds Act

The ESSA attempted to appease popular sentiment against the No Child Left Behind Act’s (NCLB) overreliance on standardized testing and punitive sanctions. . . . Congress simply stripped the federal government of regulatory power and vastly expanded state discretion. For the first time in fifty years, the federal government now lacks the ability to prompt improvements in student achievement or to demand equal resources for low-income students. Thus, the ESSA rests on a bold premise: states will abandon their historical tendencies by voluntarily providing low-income students with equal educational opportunities.

Although the ESSA remains committed to equality on its face, it does the opposite in practice. First, the ESSA affords states wide latitude on student performance, accountability, and school reform. Wide state discretion opens the door to fifty disparate state systems, none of which guarantee equality. Second, the ESSA directly weakens two existing equity standards and leaves untouched a loophole that exempts eighty percent of school expenditures from equity analysis. Third, the ESSA leaves federal funding flat, eliminating the possibility that additional resources will offset the inequalities that the foregoing provisions permit. These changes to federal education law are so out of character that they beg the question of why the federal government is even involved in education at all.

States were free to devise almost any plan they could conceive, as long as they came up with something--as long as they filled in the blanks.  Pick a word, any word.

The problem with California's plan is that it appears to not have filled in some important blanks.  In particular, it did not set achievement goals.  Those goals could have been high or low.  California apparently chose neither.  As I was railing on the ESSA and how much authority it devolved to the states in Abandoning the Federal Role, I could not imagine a state would go this far.  Instead, I thought states would use the flexibility to manipulate and cover up inequality.  A few of the early ESSA plans did just that.  And the law allows it.  

For some reason, California does not appear interested in manipulation.  

Almost all of the Department's comments go to the issue of picking achievement and graduation targets.  It makes no suggestion of what those targets should be because, of course, California can choose.  I found this comment most telling:

In its State plan, CDE describes a component of its long-term goals for academic achievement called “status”, which is based on average scale scores, rather than goals based on proficiency.  CDE may use scale scores in the goal but must clarify how the use of scale scores relates to proficiency levels, including how the State ensures that a school will be able to meet the measurements of interim progress and long-term goals only by increasing the number or percentage of students who are proficient.

For those not up on test score manipulation, states are allowed to pick arbitrary cut-off scores for proficiency.  This was one of the fatal flaws of NCLB.  States like Mississippi picked very low cut off scores, so as to ensure high proficiency rates.  Under NCLB, Mississippi's initial self-reported proficiency rates were in the 90 percentile.  Florida had its own scandals, with one insider claiming the state would until after all of the tests were in and then based on the results, pick a cut off score that produced the proficiency rate the state wanted.

If I read DOE's letter correctly, California is not even willing to do that.  Come on California.  Congress has told you that you can make up your own rules.  Just do it.  Or is California taking some sort of principled stance?  If so, what is that stance?

If California is just interested in being disruptive and contrarian (unlikely), it sill has one more card to play.  If the Department is not clear or quick enough in helping California fix its plan, ESSA has provisions that would cause the plan to be approved even with its missing information.

ESEA/NCLB, Federal policy | Permalink


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