Navigating Federal Requirements
In the midst of the holiday season, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) released a draft FAQ addressing the requirements for school accountability in 2022 under ESSA. We won’t call this release a gift, but it at least provides some clarity for states deep in planning for 2021–22 accountability. Here we highlight some key components of the FAQ, zero in on challenges, and provide our recommendations for states as they consider how to respond to federal requirements related to school accountability this year.
What Did We Learn From the USED Guidance?
In short, accountability is back for 2021–22. The procedures states must follow under ESSA to make changes to their approved accountability systems remain in place. Here’s a reminder of those:
- States seeking one-year, temporary changes to their system must submit an addendum.
- States planning permanent changes must use the amendment process.
- States seeking exceptions to statutory requirements must submit a waiver.
The FAQ is essentially a reminder of existing requirements and options, with some new ideas thrown in the mix. Those options fall into three categories, which we discuss below.
We know test participation varied greatly in 2020–21; we don’t know how things will play out this spring. Regardless, the FAQ reasserts requirements for 95% test participation. Additionally, states must include all indicators in systems of annual meaningful differentiation. Reminders of existing alternatives for specifying accountability requirements focus on the ability—through the paths listed above—to adjust calculations, years of data, how indicators are combined, and use of a summary score.
Identification and Exit
Given that states must identify schools for support based on performance in 2021–22, most state leaders are understandably focused on criteria for identification and exit. The options to change identification methodologies, definitions of “consistently underperforming,” and identification timelines come with challenges we discuss below.
We also highlight options to modify exit criteria as noteworthy. These modifications could impact both previously-identified schools (to be considered for exit) and schools identified in fall 2022 (that could have different exit timelines).
Supports and Reporting
The document reasserts state report card requirements, with commonsense suggestions to draw attention to the data challenges caused by COVID-19, and acknowledges that states could go as far as using a completely different layout or display to distinguish 2021–22 reporting.
USED encourages states to consider how to coordinate use of COVID relief funds to support school improvement focused on addressing the impact of lost learning time. They suggest that improvement planning could be informed by opportunity-to-learn measures and should consider re-engagement through social-emotional learning and mental health supports, academic supports, and family connections.
What Are the Ongoing Challenges Related to Restarting Accountability?
While the guidance restates ESSA requirements and details some considerations for another unique year of education, states still face mounting challenges with restarting their accountability systems.
Data availability may be the largest challenge. While most states administered state-wide assessments in 2021, participation rates varied widely both within and across states. The resulting inconsistencies in spring 2021 (and potentially 2022) assessment coverage and results will undoubtedly influence the achievement indicator, but especially the growth indicators that are included in nearly every state’s accountability system. These data issues will also affect any aspect of the system that relies on multiple years of data (e.g., the identification of “consistently underperforming” schools).
Additionally, states may have modified other measures—sometimes for reasons unrelated to accountability requirements—as they have tried to adjust to pandemic realities. For example, some states made changes to absenteeism, graduation requirements, and indicators of school quality and student success during a pandemic. As they restart their systems with missing or modified data, they may wish to better understand the impact of those decisions by, for example, conducting system modeling simulations. These analyses may require significant delays following data collection in school year 2021–22 to examine questions such as:
- How do missing, altered (e.g., changes in business rules, weighting), or new measures (e.g., opportunity to learn, learning modes) change the purpose and focus—not to mention the outputs—of the accountability system?
- What are the short- and long-term impacts of changing measures and classification methodologies for school identification cohorts and differentiation?
- How will changes to indicators or measures impact the longitudinal comparability of the accountability system?
In short, it is critical that the state understand the impact that changes to the system, or simply the effects of the pandemic, have on the inferences about school performance based on the accountability system.
With changes in accountability systems also comes the necessary obligation, and challenge, of engaging stakeholders. The response to restarting accountability systems will vary based on state context, but with national and state-level data illustrating the impact of the pandemic on students, it is imperative for states to provide educators, families, students, and communities with information about their local schools. With the guidance from USED coming later than ideal, some states may need to move quickly—while legislatures are still in session—to navigate making needed changes to accountability rules in their state statute. Additionally, states will need to communicate about adjusting accountability expectations halfway through the year when districts and schools have been operating for months based on unknown identification and exit criteria.
This is truly a monumental undertaking. It will be no small task for states to balance addressing the concerns of stakeholders while restarting disrupted accountability systems in ways that maintain their integrity and are as true as possible to their design and purpose.
What Are Some Approaches for Moving Forward?
Obviously, there is still the question of what to do about federal requirements. Some states may decide to apply for a waiver from these requirements, taking the position that the state can better support school improvement with alternative approaches. Or states may pare down the federal system to satisfy compliance with the law while offloading some critical functions to initiatives outside of ESSA.
Just as when they first developed their accountability systems, states again need to navigate this guidance within their own unique context, which now includes the variable influence of pandemic disruptions. Indeed, the nature and magnitude of the challenges associated with restoring accountability vary considerably across states. As noted, some states had very high assessment participation rates in 2021, whereas other states have no state assessment information from 2021 or participation was very low and uneven across districts. Additionally, state systems can differ widely with respect to how indicators are defined and reported.
Taken together, it should be obvious that there is no single solution that will work for all states. Instead, we suggest the following general approaches to inform how a state may move forward. These categories are neither comprehensive nor mutually exclusive, but we hope they are useful to guide decision-making.
Modify Design Specifications
For some aspects of a state’s accountability system, strategically-applied modifications may be sufficient to address the impact of pandemic disruptions. These adjustments may be changes in technical features or business rules, such as altering which years are used for multi-year averaging, adjusting weights, or establishing new performance thresholds. In general, modifications to design specifications will be a more viable option for states without substantial missing data in the current or prior years. If these changes are temporary, an accountability addendum should be the appropriate vehicle to submit for federal review.
Implement a Transitional System
For states that experienced more substantial disruptions resulting in widespread missing or unusable data required to maintain or modify the current system, implementing a new or transitional system may be a feasible option. This approach may involve wholesale replacement of accountability indicators or establishing new rules for data aggregation, such as performance profiles (already used in many states) in lieu of composite scores. In such cases, the meaning and interpretation of the system is regarded as completely distinct from that of the legacy system.
Depending on the nature and duration of the changes in the transitional system, an addendum may also be the appropriate vehicle to address federal requirements.
Leverage Alternatives Outside the Federal System
Ultimately, school accountability is about using information to support school improvement. There are many avenues to do this in ways that are decoupled from the requirements of ESSA. For example, surveys that provide information about access to resources or opportunity-to-learn may not satisfy the requirements to be used as an indicator in the state’s ESSA system, but that doesn’t mean states can’t use this information to inform school support and direct federal COVID relief funds. Some states implement dual systems (i.e., a state and federal system) or simply employ a variety of data collection and reporting initiatives that address areas outside of federal constraints.
Regardless, if any initiative in this category prompts a permanent change to the state’s ESSA system, an accountability amendment will be necessary. If the state seeks relief from federal requirements, a waiver is an appropriate vehicle.
Whatever approaches a state is considering, it is important to center the work in a process that honors the state’s goals and theory of action for improving outcomes for all students as discussed in more detail in other publications, including Restart & Recovery: Considering the Outlook for School Accountability by the Council of Chief State School Officers.
It is just as important for state accountability leaders, to the extent possible, to anticipate and ameliorate unintended negative consequences, which are highly likely in the current scenario. This includes working closely with broad-based advisory groups and partnering with organizations that can help the state address policy, practical, and technical implications.
Katie Carroll is the Director of Policy and State Engagement at NWEA. In this role she supports the implementation of the organization’s policy and advocacy agenda, provides technical assistance to NWEA partners, and leads the development of policy recommendations and briefs. Before joining NWEA, Katie served as the Program Director for Accountability at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) where she executed CCSSO’s overall strategy for accountability initiatives by supporting states as they developed, implemented and refined their accountability and reporting systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act.