Last month, along with our co-sponsors the National Association for State Boards of Education (NASBE) and the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), The Hunt Institute convened top-level state policymakers from 10 states to discuss new and changing state responsibilities under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to ensure that every student has access to a high quality education. The group included chairs of state legislative education committees and state boards of education, governors’ education policy advisors, senior staff from state education agencies, and representatives of third-party education advocacy organizations. The meeting was focused on deepening knowledge regarding the education policy decisions state leaders will make as they create their ESSA plans, including accountability system indicators, statewide assessments, intervention in low-performing schools, and engaging stakeholders in plan development and implementation.
During the closing session, I provided the following synopsis of the insights and advice shared by the resource experts during the meeting:
Danielle Gonzales, assistant director for policy for the Aspen Institute’s Education and Society Program, suggested the first question to ask is “What is the purpose of public education?” and then use ESSA to support that vision.
Robyn Harper, policy and advocacy associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education told policymakers that the “n-size” selected for accountability matters and that a smaller “n” allows more attention to subgroups of students.
Tara Kini, senior policy advisor at the Learning Policy Institute, provided guidance around choosing a required fifth indicator for accountability. She recommended that the decision be grounded in the local context and said it is also critical to collect the necessary data that can be used to impact student outcomes.
Nancy Doorey, an education consultant and former director of the Center for K-12 Assessment and Performance Management at ETS, emphasized the importance of clearly defining the skills the state wants to measure and the evidence required to demonstrate student mastery of those skills.
Anne Hyslop, senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education, reminded leaders that states wishing to pursue an innovative assessment pilot do not have to include every state assessment currently administered – the state could begin with a single subject such as science.
Michael Hopkins, superintendent for the Rochester, New Hampshire Schools, shared his district’s experience in New Hampshire’s state pilot project using performance assessments, which he said were hard to craft at first but then enthusiastically embraced by teachers who are now working together across disciplines to create performance tasks.
Bill Porter, a partner at Education First, encouraged policymakers to be active consumers in their quest to find appropriate state assessments, suggesting that they ask tough questions before making decisions.
Matt Gandal, founder and president of the Education Strategy Group, stressed the importance of ensuring that the state’s high school tests are aligned to the state’s standards and postsecondary expectations. He also suggested that while it’s difficult to measure career readiness with a test, states can incorporate other measures, such as credential attainment, into the accountability system to ensure it receives attention.
Laura Jimenez, director of standards and accountability at the Center for American Progress, said that without local buy-in, change is only temporary. Interventions for improving low-performing schools must not only be evidence-based, but also appropriate to the local school context and based upon a holistic picture of student needs.
Sharon Griffin, innovation zone regional superintendent for the Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tennessee, observed that you can’t coach and referee the game at the same time, and advised that districts need to make sure they have the necessary expertise from the outset to implement reforms intended to improve achievement.
Stephen Frank, partner at Education Resource Strategies, implored policymakers to break the cycle of low expectations and stop spending money on things that don’t matter or programs that do not produce results.
Steve Durham, chairman of the Colorado State Board of Education, said that the focus must always be on improving student outcomes.
Senator Jerry Sonnenberg, who represents Colorado Senate District 1, discussed the need to begin by helping parents understand why they should care about accountability and school performance.
Barbara Hickman, associate commissioner for quality instruction and leadership at the Colorado Department of Education, cited the importance of good communications as the state moves forward with creating and implementing its ESSA plan.
Rachel Man, a 4th-grade language arts teacher from Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland and a Teach Plus Fellow, urged policymakers to engage teachers and parents directly and solicit their input right from the beginning.
Those who attendedthe two-day meeting welcomed the opportunity to learn more about best practices and how states with similar challenges are addressing them. State leaders enjoyed conversations with resource experts as well as the diverse group of representatives from other states. Team members returned home with a commitment to continue their collaboration and to engage stakeholders as plans are being developed.