The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): More Observations
On Monday, November 30, 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) document was made public. It is 1,061 pages long and is being rushed to the full House for a vote on December 02, 2015, with one hour of debate (limited to one-minute speeches) scheduled for 12 noon EST.
Only two days later.
The best explanation for the rush is that those sponsoring the bill, Senators Lamar Alexander and Parry Murray and Representative John Kline, believe that ESSA passage has already been arranged.
A delayed vote might mean that some of those sure Congressional votes become less sure. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between the so-called democratic process and the pressure sale.
On November 30, 2015, I wrote a post based upon my quick, 4 1/2-hour perusal of the ESSA document. In this post, I expand upon previous observations and add a few new ones.
ESSA is undeniably test-centric, and even as it includes language about state and local rights to set opt out policy, it includes language to lock in testing for “95 percent of all students” grades 3 thru 8 and at least one grade in high school in each state seeking Title I funding.
The attempted lock-in comes in the way that ESSA mandates that at least “95 percent of all students” be tested. Here is the exact language (page 88):
(E) ANNUAL MEASUREMENT OF ACHIEVEMENT.—
(i) Annually measure the achievement of not less than 95 percent of all students, and 95 percent of all students in each subgroup of students, who are enrolled in public schools on the assessments described under subsection (b)(2)(v)(I).
(ii) For the purpose of measuring, calculating, and reporting on the indicator described in subparagraph (B)(i), include in the denominator the greater of—
(I) 95 percent of all such students, or 95 percent of all such students in the subgroup, as the case may be; or
(II) the number of students participating in the assessments.
(iii) Provide a clear and understandable explanation of how the State will factor the requirement of clause (i) of this subparagraph into the statewide accountability system.
In ESSA, states are called upon to use test scores for school “accountability.” Earlier in the document, ESSA calls for test that are “used for purposes for which such assessments are valid and reliable” (page 53). However, no testing company is foolish enough to advertise its student achievement tests as “valid and reliable” for grading schools.
I am waiting for a state official with chutzpah to challenge the federal government in court over this nonsense.
I mentioned in my first post on ESSA that the federal government’s efforts to pressure states into forcing students to test will likely lead to lawsuits. All it would take is for a single state to challenge the federal government on this mandated 95-percent-testing rule to put the supposedly state-control-advancing USDOE on the hot seat. My guess is that in the current climate of displeasure with federal overreach into state education policy, the federal government would back down lest it further fuel the grass roots opt-out movement.
But the goal of the writers of ESSA is to put in language that will get the votes, not language that works in lives lived outside of Washington, DC.
One issue of concern in the Student Success Act (SSA), the House precursor of ESSA, involved portability of Title I funding– the money following the student– which I immediately viewed as an accounting and budgeting nightmare. In SSA, portability of funding was the rule. In contrast, ESSA does not require states to treat Title I funding as portable, but it does allow local education agencies to follow such a course by combining federal money with state and local monies in order to create a system based on funding that “follows the student.” Thus, if a local education agency wants to pursue funding portability, it can, according to Part E, Section 1501, of Title I (page 279). The number of local education agencies that can enter into such an agreement with the US secretary of education is 50 (page 280).
I have been asked whether social impact bonds appear in ESSA. They do, under the term, “pay for success,” which is defined as follows (page 797):
PAY FOR SUCCESS INITIATIVE.—The term ‘pay for success initiative’ means a performance-based grant, contract, or cooperative agreement awarded by a public entity in which a commitment is made to pay for improved outcomes that result in social benefit and direct cost savings or cost avoidance to the public sector. Such an initiative shall include—
(A) a feasibility study on the initiative describing how the proposed intervention is based on evidence of effectiveness;
(B) a rigorous, third-party evaluation that uses experimental or quasi-experimental design or other research methodologies that allow for the strongest possible causal inferences to determine whether the initiative has met its proposed outcomes;
(C) an annual, publicly available report on the progress of the initiative; and
(D) a requirement that payments are made to the recipient of a grant, contract, or cooperative agreement only when agreed upon outcomes are achieved, except that the entity may make payments to the third party conducting the evaluation described in subparagraph (B).
Of course, the problem here is that the funder of the pay-for-success initiative could somehow exploit children or influence such exploitation in an effort to shape the desired, “successful” outcome. Only successful outcomes result in profits.
ESSA allows pay-for-success initiatives in Title I, Part D, “Prevention and Intervention Programs for Children and Youth Who Are Neglected, Delinquent, or At Risk” (pages 262, 268), including at-risk Indian children and youth (page 274), and in Title IV, Part A, “Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants,” section 4108, “Activities to Support Safe and Healthy Students” (i.e., drug and violence prevention programs) (page 477, 485).
Regarding personally identifiable student data: Section 8545 (page 859):
‘‘SEC. 8545. SENSE OF CONGRESS ON PROTECTING STUDENT PRIVACY.
(a) FINDINGS.—The Congress finds as follows:
(1) Students’ personally identifiable information is important to protect.
(2) Students’ information should not be shared with individuals other than school officials in
charge of educating those students without clear notice to parents. (3) With the use of more technology, and more
research about student learning, the responsibility to protect students’ personally identifiable information is more important than ever.
(4) Regulations allowing more access to students’ personal information could allow that information to be shared or sold by individuals who do not have the best interest of the students in mind.
(5) The Secretary has the responsibility to ensure every entity that receives funding under this Act holds any personally identifiable information in strict confidence.
(b) SENSE OF CONGRESS.—It is the sense of the
Congress that the Secretary should review all regulations addressing issues of student privacy, including those under this Act, and ensure that students’ personally identifiable information is protected.
Since I need to bring this to a close, let me end with the fact that ESSA is supposed to last only four years, until 2020. Given the difficulty it has been to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 and move beyond the last version, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 (and really, ESSA doesn’t move beyond the life-sucking testing focus of NCLB), it is time to put this monster to rest.
A 1,061-page federal education bill is too much.
O Congress, consider conversion to block grants. Non-test-centered block grants.