Education Department wants California to improve its ESSA plan


In a letter to California education officials, the U.S. Department of Education noted several flaws in the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan, a federal law that addresses the academic performance and success of students and schools throughout each state.

Signed into law in 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act ensures that all students are given an equal opportunity, receive a high-quality education and are taught to high academic standards.  The law replaced the No Child Left Behind Act and aims to address the performance of low-performing student groups and low-income schools.

Under the federal law, all states must submit a plan to the U.S. Department of Education that describes how each state will set expectations and measure growth and improvement in its lowest-performing schools.

California submitted its final plan to the Education Department in September 2017 and is now being asked to resubmit the document, with revisions and clarifications, by Jan. 8 unless the state requests an extension.

In his 12-page feedback letter to the California Department of Education, Jason Botel, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, voiced concerns with California’s long-term goals for improvement and its measurements of student progress and success.

“California appreciates the federal government’s feedback and looks forward to the opportunity to further clarify and strengthen our Every Student Succeeds Act plan,” State Board of Education President Michael W. Kirst and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a joint statement.  “We will be working to address technical points of clarification while noting that there are areas of disagreement over the interpretation of federal statute.”

Kirst and Torlakson also noted that California’s ESSA plan follows the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) that emphasizes continuous improvement, public participation and equity and that the state’s resubmitted ESSA plan “will retain those principles.”

Much of the discrepancy between California’s plan and the ESSA law is due to the state’s new and complex accountability system: the California School Dashboard.

The system is different from federal law because it measures more than just student test scores, it also evaluates schools’ and districts’ performance over time and assesses student success through multiple measures.

Instead of giving schools and districts a numerical score or proficiency rating, they are given a color score–ranging from blue, the best, to green, yellow, orange and red, the worst—that correlate with five pieces within a pie chart for each performance indicator.

The U.S. Department of Education also noted its concerns about the state’s ability to describe interim goals and long-term goals for students’ academic performance, graduation rate and English Language proficiency.

Additional Concerns:

  • California uses school-level goals and proficiency to measure long-term academic achievement instead of measuring the percentage of students achieving grade-level proficiency on annual assessments.
  • The state plans to use additional indicators, like chronic absenteeism and college/career readiness, instead of using only annual assessments in English Language Arts and math, to measure the academic achievement of students.
  • The state plans to provide additional support to schools with a graduation rates less than 67 percent during three consecutive year; however, under ESSA states are required to report schools failing to graduate one-third or more of their students. This discrepancy could result in schools not being identified by the state.
  • To have schools “exit” classification for targeted support and improvement, they must no longer meet the criteria identified under California’s plan. But, this approach may not guarantee improvement because schools “might exit because other schools began performing worse.”

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