USDE, MDE Begin to Lay Out New State Accountability Rules

June 27, 2016 • Krista Kaput

When Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to replace the much maligned No Child Left Behind (NCLB) educators were left with two questions: How much power would the US Department of Education (USDE) actually hand off to the states to set their own accountability standards, and how would the states use that new power to change the way schools would be evaluated for effectiveness? The questions are of special interest to charter school advocates, who have complained for years that NCLB’s focus on standardized testing discouraged the kind of innovative pedagogy chartering was established to generate.

Some early answers came May 31, 2016, when USDE published draft regulations that give more specificity about the indicators that ESSA requires in state accountability plans.

Reactions to the draft regulations have been divided along party lines. Democrats have lauded the regulations for providing more guidance to states. Congressman Scott (D-VA) said in a statement that, “The Secretary’s proposed regulations fulfill the federal obligation to protect and promote equity, ensuring that ESSA implementation will uphold the civil rights legacy of the law.”

Republicans have criticized the draft regulations for overreach. Senator Alexander (R-TN), a key architect of ESSA, said in a statement he was “disappointed that the draft regulations seem to include provisions that the Congress considered and expressly rejected.” Similarly, Congressman Kline (R-MN) indicated that he was, “deeply concerned the department is trying to take us back to the days when Washington dictated national education policy.”

A few of the controversial specifications in the draft regulations include:

  • All public schools in a state must receive a single summative rating.
  • Equal weight must be given to math and reading.
  • The new “additional school quality indicator” added in ESSA must be shown to contribute to student achievement or higher graduation rates, and must differentiate schools from one another.
  • States are required to take some type of punitive action against schools that do not meet the 95 percent testing participation requirement. The draft spells out specific actions a state may take.

What does this mean for Minnesota’s accountability plan?
Given the new draft regulations and the language in the law, there are some significant changes that the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) will have to make to the state’s current accountability plan. These changes will undoubtedly have an impact on charter schools since all public schools, which includes charter schools, must abide by the state’s accountability system.

In February 2016 MDE released a memo that provided a general overview of possible changes that would have to occur for the state’s accountability plan to align with ESSA, including:

  • The state must add an indicator that measures progress in achieving EL proficiency, most likely the ACCESS test.
  • An additional indicator of school quality will be needed. MDE did not give any information about possible indicators it will consider.
  • MDE indicated that “additional engagement and deliberation” is needed to determine what would happen to schools that did not meet the mandated 95 percent testing participation rate.

What does this mean for Minnesota chartered schools?
At this stage, based on ESSA and the draft federal regulations alone, it is challenging to further diagnose the impact that the changes will have on charter schools in particular. Much will depend on how MDE interprets the law and regulations in drafting Minnesota’s new plan.

One accountability indicator sure to be of special significance to Minnesota’s charter sector will be the “English language proficiency” measure. Minnesota’s charter schools have a substantially higher ELL population than traditional district public schools; 20 percent of students in Minnesota’s charter schools are ELL students compared to 8 percent in traditional district schools statewide, according to the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools.

Next steps
According to MDE’s timeline for ESSA implementation, the department will be convening workgroups in June and July of 2016 to inform the development of the state’s new plan. Section 1111(a)(1)(A) in ESSA requires that the plan be drafted in consultation with various stakeholders, which includes charter school leaders.

The timeline for editing, submitting and implementing the new plan is tight. In October 2016 USDE is expected to release the final regulations. MDE has allocated November and December for reconvening workgroups to draft the state plan. MDE can submit its final plan to USDE for approval in March or July of 2017. The new state plan must be fully implemented by the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year.

Education Evolving will be following and reporting on ESSA implementation in the coming months.