Comment on ESSA regulations

These comments may be submitted at: Revise as you choose, or simply cut and paste.

In December, parents, teachers and students across the country applauded the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which seemed to offer a way out of the federally imposed test-and-punish regime that has done so much damage to schools and education nationwide.

Unfortunately, the Department of Education’s (DoE) draft regulations intensify ESSA’s worst aspects and will perpetuate many of NCLB’s most harmful practices. The draft regulations over-emphasize testing, mandate punishments not required in law, and continue federal micro-management. By once again taking over decisions that should be made at state and local levels in partnership with local educators, parents, and students, the regulations take away the local voices that ESSA sought to restore. As proposed, the regulations will make it harder for states, districts and schools to recover from the educational damage caused by NLCB – the very damage that led Congress to fundamentally overhaul NCLB’s accountability structure and return authority to the states.

I support the comments submitted by FairTest on June 15. To avoid making a bad situation worse, DoE must remove or thoroughly revise several aspects of these draft regulations.

• DoE draft regulation 200.15 would require states to lower the ranking of any school that does not test 95% of its students or to identify it as needing “targeted support.” No such mandate exists in ESSA, and this provision violates statutory language that ESSA does not override “a State or local law regarding the decision of a parent to not have the parent’s child participate in the academic assessments.”
Recommendation: DoE should simply restate ESSA language allowing the right to opt out as well as its requirements that states test 95% of students in identified grades and factor low participation rates into their accountability systems. Alternatively, DoE could write no regulation at all. In either case, states should decide how to implement this provision.

• DoE draft regulation 200.18 far exceeds the limits ESSA placed on DoE actions regarding state accountability plans. It transforms ESSA’s requirement for “meaningful differentiation” among schools into a mandate that states create “at least three distinct levels of school performance” for each indicator. This proposal serves no educationally useful purpose, and several states have indicated they oppose this provision because it obscures rather than enhances their ability to precisely identify problems and because it misleads the public. The regulation also mandates that states combine multiple indicators into a single “summative” score for each school. As Rep. John Kline, chair of the House Education Committee, pointed out, ESSA includes no such requirement. Summative scores are reductive and opaque. They encourage the flawed school grading schemes promoted by diehard NCLB defenders. Both performance levels and summative scores would pressure schools to continue unproductive over-emphasis on raising test scores and teaching to the test.
Recommendation: DoE should drop this draft regulation. It should allow states to decide how to use their indicators to identify schools and whether to report a single score. Even better, the DoE should encourage states to drop the use of levels and summative scores.

• DoE draft regulation 200.18 further proposes that a state’s academic (read “test score”) indicators together carry “much greater” weight than other “school quality” indicators. Members of Congress differ as to the intent of the relevant ESSA passage. Some say it simply means more than 50%, while others claim it implies much more than 50%. The phrase “much greater” is likely to push states to maximize the weight of test scores in order to win plan approval from DOE, especially since the overall tone of the draft regulations emphasizes testing.
Recommendation: The regulations should simply state that academic indicators must count for more than 50% of the weighting in how a state identifies schools needing support.

• DoE draft regulation 200.19 would require states to use 2016-17 data to select schools for “support and improvement” in 2017-18. This leaves states barely a year for implementation, too little time to overhaul accountability systems. It will have the harmful consequence of encouraging states to keep using a narrow set of test-based indicators and to select only one additional “non-academic” indicator.
Recommendation: The regulations should allow states to use 2017-18 data to identify schools for 2018-19. This change is entirely consistent with ESSA’s language.

Finally, I am concerned that these unwarranted regulations will unhelpfully constrain states that choose to participate in ESSA’s promising “innovative assessment” program. This is crucial work, and should be supported rather than stifled.