What’s Next for School Accountability?


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This is the final post of a three-part series that covers school accountability requirements following the Every Student Succeeds Act enacted in December 2015. This series shares the history of the act, state implementation plans and how state plans have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Little did we know, the final year of ESSA implementation would be intertwined with a wave of unprecedented challenges to the education system. On Monday, February 22, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance indicating states will be required to administer federally required standardized assessments in 2021, while offering flexibility in state accountability system reporting requirements.

In thinking about where states go from here, several questions emerge including how assessments will be administered, how those results will be used, how gaps in data will be addressed and whether states will make any long-term changes to their assessment and accountability systems.

Now that we know assessments will not be waived again in 2021, how will states administer assessments and how will those results be used for accountability or teacher evaluation purposes?

In the absence of assessment and waivers, some states are making tweaks to the spring 2021 assessments and their impact on accountability. These tweaks seek to remove the high stakes nature of statewide assessment and instead, measure potential learning impacts, adjust future instruction, and inform parents and teachers of student progress.

For example, Massachusetts enacted H.B. 4616, which clarifies that any assessment data gathered in 2020 should only be used to inform educators and parents about student performance. This legislation also requires school districts to submit a three-year plan that outlines clear and achievable goals and measurable standards for student improvement in order to address persistent disparities in student opportunity.

Similarly, Michigan enacted H.B. 5913 requiring schools to develop extended COVID-19 learning plans that include the use of benchmark assessments to measure student progress toward achievement goals. While states may seek to deemphasize high-stakes assessment, many still call for data collection and district efforts to address disparities and improve student achievement.

How will states address the gap in assessment and accountability data from the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school year?

State policymakers are facing a difficult balancing act between the need for assessment data to identify needs and target supports, the efficacy and validity of testing in the current education landscape, and the health and social and emotional needs of students. The gaps in data could mean that schools that are already working through improvement plans may not be moved out of them in the 2020-21 school year, new schools may not be identified for additional supports, and the supports and funding those schools received may also be in question. All of these issues could stall progress for under-resourced schools and exacerbate persistent inequities for students.

In addition, when it seemed like there would only be one year of missed assessment and accountability data, several organizations released guidance to states on how to address those gaps and move forward. From transferring data from 2019 or waiting until testing is possible, to adopting a skip-year growth model to evaluate student progress, states are looking at various options. Now that we could be looking at an additional year without full state accountability data, we are watching to see how states handle this challenge.

Colorado, through executive order, canceled state assessments in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and rolled over the school accountability ratings from 2019. In addition, executive order followed by state legislation (H.B. 20-1418) paused state accountability ratings for the 2020-21 school year, further rolling over the 2019 accountability ratings. A stakeholder group was convened through the same legislation to evaluate state assessments, accountability, accreditation and educator evaluations. The results of that group are a series of recommendations to the governor and legislature about how to proceed in the 2021-22 school year.

What changes, if any, will be made to state accountability systems moving forward?

As states continue to consider year-to-year amendments to their assessment and accountability systems in response to the pandemic, they are also finding opportunities to adopt long-term changes. With significant questions still up in the air, Education Commission of the States will continue to track state activity and welcomes input from state education leaders. If your state is doing something interesting related to assessment and accountability systems moving forward, let us know.

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Meghan McCann is a former assistant policy director at Education Commission of the States.

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Policy Analyst at Education Commission of the States | berwin@ecs.org

As a policy analyst, Ben works on tracking legislation, answering information requests and contributing to other Policy Team projects. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, he taught high school social studies in Kentucky and worked in education policy at the National Conference of State Legislatures. He earned a master's degree in education policy from the University of Colorado Boulder and a bachelor's degree in history and education from Transylvania University.

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State Relations Strategist at Education Commission of the States | lfreemire@ecs.org

Lauren supports the state relations team in cultivating relationships and building partnerships with all Education Commission of the States Commissioners. She is the liaison for Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, Lauren worked on public policy and government relations with Save the Children Action Network in Colorado, Clayton Early Learning, National Conference of State Legislatures and with several members of the legislative and executive branches in Colorado. Lauren is dedicated to helping policymakers across the states connect and collaborate to improve education systems for all students.

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