by Phillip Lovell

The bipartisan gloves are off.

Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce held its first hearing regarding the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). When President Obama signed this bill into law in December, both sides of the aisle showered praise upon the legislation, reminiscent of the days when Congress was functional. Yesterday’s hearing was a stark reminder of the deep philosophical divide between Republicans and Democrats regarding the federal role in education, particularly on the issue of ensuring an equitable education for all students.

Although both parties passed ESSA, they are worlds apart on how to implement it. House Democrats want the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to hold states accountable for equity. House Republicans want to hold ED accountable for state flexibility.

It’s too early to tell how state accountability systems will balance equity and flexibility under the new law. What is clear is that education reform advocates need to support state leaders who recognize the need for accountability systems to focus on equity, and ED needs to issue regulations that require states to maintain that focus.

Thankfully, ESSA maintains bipartisan federal policy that, along with hard-working educators, parents, and students, has led to the nation’s highest graduation rate on record—82.3 percent for School Year 2013–14. This means the number of high school dropouts has declined from 1 million in 2008 to approximately 750,000 in 2012.

Even with those gains, one in five students still drops out every year—that is more than 4,000 students every school day. Additionally, there remain 1,235 high schools nationwide that fail to graduate one-third or more of their students. These schools disproportionately enroll students of color and students from low-income families. Graduation rate gaps also remain prevalent. In fact, during the past four years, the gap in high school graduation rates between Latino and white students grew in nine states. The gap between African American and white students grew in ten states.

ESSA provides states, districts, and schools with the flexibility they need to innovate and implement evidenced-based school improvement efforts to ensure that all students graduate with deeper learning outcomes, including critical thinking, complex problem-solving, peer collaboration, and other skills necessary to succeed in today’s economy. The federal government must balance this flexibility, however, with an unwavering commitment to equity and address the major challenges in educational opportunity and quality that persist.

The next few months will shape federal education policy for the next decade. As ED develops regulations for ESSA, the Alliance encourages it to clarify five very important equity-focused provisions. Specifically, ESSA regulations must do the following:

  1. Require states to use the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR) to identify low-graduation-rate high schools. ESSA requires action to improve high schools that fail to graduate one-third or more of students. ESSA regulations must clarify that states are required to use the four-year ACGR to identify these high schools. The regulations also should clarify that a state may raise the threshold for identification of low-graduation-rate schools above 67 percent. In addition, if a state uses an extended-year graduation rate, ESSA regulations should ensure that states set the threshold higher than 67 percent.
  1. Set parameters around the definition of “consistently underperforming” subgroups to ensure that state accountability systems do not mask the high school graduation rates of traditionally underserved students. ESSA requires evidence-based, targeted intervention in schools with “consistently underperforming” subgroups of students. Under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers ED issued, fourteen states and territories had either no accountability for the high school graduation rates of student subgroups or such minimal accountability that a low graduation rate among a single subgroup would not lead to an intervention. Ensuring that the performance of traditionally underserved students matters in state accountability systems is a top priority for the Alliance and the civil rights community.
  1. Define “substantial weight” so that low high school graduation rates trigger the implementation of meaningful, locally-determined interventions in high schools under state accountability systems. ESSA requires high school graduation rates and other academic indicators to carry “substantial weight” in state accountability systems. Under NCLB waivers, eleven states include graduation rates for less than 25 percent of the overall state index used for accountability purposes. Rather than requiring states to assign a numeric weight to certain indicators, ESSA regulations should allow states to show that an indicator has “substantial weight” if low performance on the indicator triggers interventions.
  1. Use school improvement funding for interventions that demonstrate the greatest effectiveness in improving learning outcomes for the lowest-performing students. ESSA provides tremendous flexibility when it comes to interventions for low-performing schools. ESSA regulations should balance this flexibility with a focus on quality. School reform efforts such as the Institute for Student Achievement, Small Schools of Choice, and Linked Learning demonstrate positive impact. ESSA regulations must ensure that states use scarce federal resources efficiently to implement high-quality interventions for low-achieving students.
  1. Clarify that when states develop their accountability systems, they can use anaccountability dashboard, instead of an index, to promote transparency, support continuous improvement of all schools, and measure students’ deeper learning skills and competencies. Accountability indexes can be deceiving because they combine many different indicators into a single score, which can mask low performance. For example, a report from The Education Trust shows that only 58 percent of African American students are proficient in reading in Florida’s schools that received an “A” rating. A data dashboard would require states to act in response to multiple indicators, rather than oversimplifying student performance through a singular letter grade. In addition, a data dashboard would incorporate measures of school quality or student success that promote deeper learning and are measurable, actionable, and lead to academic success.

For regular updates on what’s happening on the road to ESSA regulation, tune in to Federal Flash

Phillip Lovell is vice president of policy and advocacy for comprehensive high school reform at the Alliance for Excellent Education.  See the original post here.