Stop giving out easy As, Fordham, and start holding states accountable for ESSA

I found Illinois’ accountability plan woefully inadequate and full of holes–especially when it comes to protecting vulnerable groups of students–so imagine my surprise when my state was awarded a “perfect score” by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Fordham analyzed the plans submitted by all fifty states and the District of Columbia under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). and scored them on whether they are strong, weak, or middling on three key areas:

  1. Assigning annual ratings to schools that are clear and intuitive for parents, educators, and the public;
  2. Encouraging schools to focus on all students, not just their low performers; and
  3. Fairly measuring and judging all schools, including those with high rates of poverty.

I suppose when you are trying to look for common denominators across all states, you have to zero in on a few priorities, but this analysis is too superficial to be of much use.

Let’s take #1 for example. Illinois got a “strong” score on this because it created a four-tier rating system that “immediately conveys to all observers how well a given school is performing.” But that’s simply not true–Illinois ratings will NOT reveal meaningful differences among schools. About 90 percent of Illinois schools will fall into two rosy-sounding categories–“exemplary schools” and “commendable schools”–which suggests the status quo is working just fine for kids in nearly all of our schools. The bottom 5 percent will be considered a “lowest-performing” school, and the other 5 percent is underperforming.

And given the fact that the general public is paying ZERO attention to this law (along with many state legislators, if my experience at a recent candidates’ forum was any indication), I’m not clear why Illinois gets extra credit for dumbing down its rating system to make it “clear and intuitive” to an apathetic public.

And on #2, Illinois gets another “strong” rating because the state shifts the accountability focus to student “growth”–how much a student improves from year to year–rather than “proficiency,” an arbitrary cut-point for what represents grade-level learning. That’s good news. But it’s hard to celebrate this when you consider how vulnerable “subgroups” of students will once again disappear from accountability, presuming they attend schools that are not the worst of the worst but merely mediocre or even average.

For #3, Illinois gets credit again, because it uses student growth on standardized tests to “fairly measure and judge all schools.” This is just laughable because Illinois schools have until the year 2032 to meet its goals–15 long years to get up to snuff. Nothing much happens if Illinois schools don’t hit these goals, or even make reasonable progress toward these goals. This doesn’t sound too fair to me.

So Fordham, I appreciate that you are trying to make the case for state empowerment and declaring ESSA a success. But you gotta admit, you were a pretty easy grader:

Altogether, twenty-one of the fifty-one proposed school rating systems are either good or great—earning at least two strong grades and one medium. And those of eight states—Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Washington—are the best, having received perfect scores. Moreover, of all the ratings we assigned across the three objectives, 50 percent were strong and 29 percent were medium. On the flip side, three states received weak grades in each of the three areas: California, Idaho, and North Dakota.

Next time, dig deeper. Hold states feet to the fire. Too much is at stake.

What do you think?
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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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