Category Archives: Education Policy

Why Aren’t States Innovating in Student Assessments?

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

In the next few weeks, students across the country will begin taking their state’s end-of-year assessment. Despite rhetoric over the years about innovations in assessments and computer-based delivery, by and large, students’ testing experience in 2022 will parallel students’ testing experience in 2002. The monolith of one largely multiple-choice assessment at the end of the school year remains. And so does the perennial quest to improve student tests. 

On Feb. 15, 2022, the U.S. Department of Education released applications for its Competitive Grants for State Assessments program to support innovation in state assessment systems. This year’s funding priorities encourage the use of multiple measures (e.g., including curriculum-embedded performance tasks in the end-of-year assessment) and mastery of standards as part of a competency-based education model. Despite the program’s opportunity for additional funding to develop more innovative assessments, reactions to the announcement ranged from unenthusiastic to crickets. 

One reason for the tepid response is that states are in the process of rebooting their assessment systems after the lack of statewide participation during the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Creating a new assessment — let alone a new, innovative system — takes time and staff resources at the state and district level that aren’t available in the immediate term. Although historic federal-level pandemic funds flowed into states, districts, and schools, political support for assessments is not high, making it difficult for states to justify spending COVID relief funding on developing and administering new statewide assessments.  

Another reason for the lackluster response is the challenges states have in developing an innovative assessment that complies with the Every Student Succeeds Act’s (ESSA) accountability requirements. Like its predecessor, No Child Left Behind, ESSA requires all students to participate in statewide testing. States must use the scores — along with other indicators — to identify schools for additional support largely based on in-state rankings. 

The challenge is that in developing any new, innovative assessment unknowns abound. How can states feel confident administering assessments without a demonstrated track record of student success and school accountability for scores?  

ESSA addresses this issue by permitting states to apply for the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA). Under IADA, qualifying states wouldn’t need to administer the innovative or traditional assessments to all students within the state. However, states would need to demonstrate that scores from the innovate and the traditional assessments are comparable — similar enough to be interchangeable — for all students and student subgroups (e.g., students of different races/ethnicities). The regulations provide examples of methods to demonstrate comparability such as (1) requiring all students within at least one grade level to take both assessments, (2) administering both assessments to a demographically representative sample of students, (3) embedding a significant portion of one assessment within the other assessment, or (4) an equally rigorous alternate method.  

The comparability requirement is challenging for states to meet, particularly due to unknowns related to administering a new assessment and because comparability must be met for all indicators of the state’s accountability system. For instance, one proposal was partially approved pending additional evidence that the assessment could provide data for the state’s readiness “literacy” indicator. To date, only five states have been approved for IADA.  

When Congress reauthorizes ESSA, one option for expanding opportunities for innovative assessments is to waive accountability determinations for participating schools during the assessment’s pilot phase. But this approach omits comparability of scores — the very problem IADA is designed to address and an omission that carries serious equity implications. Comparability of scores is a key component for states to identify districts and schools that need additional improvement support. It’s also a mechanism to identify schools serving students of color and low-income students well to ensure that best practices are replicated in other schools.  

In the meantime, states should bolster existing assessment infrastructure to be better positioned when resources are available to innovate. Specifically, states should:  

  • Improve score reporting to meaningfully and easily communicate results to educators and families. Score reporting is an historical afterthought of testing. A competitive priority for the Competitive Grants for State Assessments is improving reporting, for instance by providing actionable information for parents on the score reports. This provides an opportunity for states to better communicate the information already collected.
  • Increase efforts to improve teacher classroom assessment literacy. End-of-year assessments are just one piece of a larger system of assessments. It’s important that teachers understand how to properly use, interpret, and communicate those scores. And it’s even more important that teachers have additional training in developing the classroom assessments used as part of everyday instruction, which are key to a balanced approach to testing.  

Given the current need for educators and parents to understand their student’s academic progress — especially amid an ongoing pandemic that has upended education and the systematic tracking of student achievement — comparability of test scores may outweigh the advantages of innovative end-of-year assessments. By focusing on comparability, states can better direct resources to the students and schools that need them most.  

Updating Data Systems is a Critical Piece of State-Improved ESSA Plans

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

For the last two years, state-level Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability plans ​​— which provide critical information about student achievement and school culture — have either been modified or essentially on pause due to COVID-19-related school closures. From canceling statewide assessments to variability in how attendance was taken, the lack of high-quality and reliable data made it difficult for states to follow their original ESSA accountability plans. 

However, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) signaled that states must restart ESSA accountability plans and identify their lowest-performing schools in fall 2022. Recognizing the impact that COVID-19 has had on schools’ and states’ ability to use indicators like test score growth and attendance, the DOE guidance specified that states can make one-year or longer-term changes to their accountability plans. The guidance also noted that in fall 2022 states’ Report Cards must contain all the data as required under ESSA, including for the 2021-22 school year (e.g., access to advanced coursework, suspension rates, math and reading proficiency, graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, and per-pupil school funding).  

These may seem like easy tasks since states already developed and implemented ESSA accountability plans and report cards. However, not all state data systems are created equal. Prior to the pandemic, Washington, D.C. and all 50 states were missing at least one data point required under ESSA. Furthermore, many ESSA accountability plans used inconsistent data and methodology to identify schools for support — particularly as it relates to English language learners, students with disabilities, students of color, and low-income students. A 2017 Bellwether analysis found that only 10 of 51 ESSA plans indicated they would incorporate student subgroup performance into rating and identifying schools for support. And, of those 10 only three — Louisiana, Minnesota, and Tennessee — provided data and information about what that would mean in practice. The other states provided broad assurances. 

Whether because of antiquated data systems, underfunding, or a lack of political will to use certain metrics, these gaps in state-level ESSA accountability data are problematic. They leave huge voids in understanding how students are doing, what’s working, and which students need support, and also hinder a state’s ability to engage in effective short- and long-term planning. 

And the problem persists over time. A 2021 analysis found that many states still don’t report on mandated metrics like participation in advanced coursework, teacher credentials, per-pupil school spending, and chronic absenteeism. Nearly 25% of states don’t include spring 2021 assessment data on their Report Cards. 

Given the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on the U.S. K-12 education system, it’s critical that states step up. We need intentional, collaborative, and thoughtful planning in order to address everything from unfinished learning to student disengagement. But this can only be done if states have access to comprehensive data that is accurate, transparent, and current. 

States are in an optimal position to invest in data system upgrades and state report cards as they rethink accountability plans. Although this kind of infrastructure investment might seem like a lesser priority, schools’ access to accurate and updated data is critical and a cost-effective investment that pays dividends in the long run. Through three major COVID-19 federal stimulus packages, state departments of education received billions of dollars to help with pandemic recovery which can include updating data systems. A May 2021 DOE FAQ gave permission and encouraged states to use COVID-19 American Rescue Plan (ARP) Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) dollars to improve their data systems. 

Many states are taking advantage of the federal funding. A June 2021 analysis found that 29 states designated some money to improve data systems and analysis capacity to better support students. For example:

  • Arkansas is using ARP dollars to launch SmartData Dashboards, an automated early warning and intervention dashboard that will help districts identify students who are off-track from graduation and implement the appropriate interventions. 
  • Connecticut is using ESSER funds to establish the COVID-19 Education Research Collaborative — a partnership with researchers from the University of Connecticut and other state universities, local representatives, and educators. The Collaborative is a long-term investment that utilizes statewide data to track the efficacy of programs and provide accurate information to the public. 
  • Minnesota is investing $6 million in ARP dollars to update Ed-Fi, a new statewide data system that will consolidate multiple data systems into one. This will allow the state to track student data in a more timely manner and identify trends in student experiences and outcomes. 
  • Missouri is using $4.3 million in Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act dollars to update its 15-year-old longitudinal data system, which will increase its capacity to collect and analyze data on individual students. 

These state-level data improvements are a step in the right direction. However, it’s critical that data system upgrades and accountability plans center all students’ needs — particularly for historically marginalized student populations. The federal funding and policy window is there to pave the way. Will states seize the opportunity?

School Choice or Option-Enabling Policies Must Center Equity

National School Choice Week is taking on particular importance this year, as more families seek options beyond the traditional K-12 public school system. During the 2020-21 school year, charter schools saw a 7% increase in enrollment compared to the previous school year, while traditional public school enrollment declined by at least 1.4 million students. Additionally, many families, including significant numbers of families of color, turned to home-schooling and emerging choice options such as microschools or learning pods. As more parents demand choice and flexibility in their children’s schooling, and more states accommodate them, equity must be at the heart of any school choice or option-enabling policy. 

In Expanding Educational Options: Emergent Policy Trends, Alex Spurrier, Lynne Graziano, Juliet Squire and I document the current state of choice or option-enabling education policies across the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, there has been a push in Republican-led states to create or expand already-established private school choice voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs. Beyond the programs that typically come to mind when thinking of “school choice,” many states have been investing in and expanding flexible learning options to meet the varying needs and preferences of students, including career and technical education (CTE), concurrent or dual enrollment, work-based learning, and extended learning. 

When implemented with equity at its core, school choice and other option-enabling policies have the potential to level the playing field for students from historically marginalized communities. Students who are economically disadvantaged, who are disproportionately Black and Latino, are more likely to be assigned to low-performing, high-poverty schools. For example, nearly half of Black students attend high-poverty schools compared to just 8% of white students. When considering academic achievement, Black students performed about three to four times worse on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading, math, and science assessments than white students. The persistent gaps in academic achievement can often be traced back to historic underinvestment in those schools and communities, still impacted by a legacy of segregation and redlining

Despite this potential, not enough school choice or option-enabling policies are designed or implemented with equity at the center. For starters, school choice policies typically don’t provide real access to opportunities for all families. Take private school vouchers and tax-credit scholarship programs, which do not always cover the cost of the average private school tuition. As a result, eligible low-income families are less able to benefit from the program. 

For example, the Florida Family Empowerment Scholarship Program awards private school vouchers up to $7,403 (95% of the state’s unweighted full-time equivalent funding). Yet, according to the website Private School Review, the average private school tuition in Florida is $9,595 per year. In these circumstances, parents are left to pay the difference out of pocket or rely on philanthropic support. If the state is going to provide families with options, it should fully fund those options or require participating schools to accept vouchers as full payment. Louisiana is one state that requires participating private schools to accept the voucher as full payment of tuition and any other fees associated with attending the school.

Admission requirements can be an additional barrier to otherwise eligible voucher families. Participating private schools can require students to meet entry requirements, limiting access to otherwise eligible students. Wisconsin is one of the few states where participating private schools can only deny admission to students for capacity reasons. When demand exceeds capacity, a lottery is held to determine admission. Furthermore, state policies often fail to provide adequate protection from discrimination on the basis of religion or LGBTQ+ identity. Maryland’s law explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Some private school choice options also lack accountability for academic performance. In several states with voucher programs, students attending private schools using taxpayer dollars aren’t required to sit for assessments or otherwise demonstrate academic progress. In states where students are required to test, there’s often little in the law holding them accountable if and when students don’t make progress. Indiana is an exception. It requires participating private schools to test voucher recipients, assigns an accountability rating, and disqualifies schools from participating in the program if they have a D or F rating for two or more consecutive years. 

When it comes to enrollment, inter-district open-enrollment policies and charter school laws theoretically open opportunities for all students. However, across the country, seats in highly desirable schools or districts are typically limited. In Philadelphia, more than 29,000 seats are available in schools identified as low-achieving, while high-achieving schools have no seats available and are often over-enrolled. When there are more applicants than seats available, a randomized lottery is held to determine students’ admission. State policies allow for preferences in the lottery, such as whether an applicant has a sibling already attending the school, but rarely are at-risk students given priority for admission, potentially closing opportunities to students who may need them most. Additionally, in some states open enrollment is voluntary, meaning school districts can choose not to participate — and in many cases, highly desired suburban and more affluent districts don’t participate.

Lastly, access to data and information families want or need is often difficult to come by, despite significant investments by states, local school districts, and philanthropy. Families, particularly those from historically marginalized groups, often have difficulty navigating choice and have less access to information about their options, enrollment processes, and transportation processes. 

Policymakers must prioritize equity, transparency, and accountability when debating and enacting choice or option-enabling policies, including:

  • Ensuring equitable access and opportunity is at the core of any state school choice or option-enabling policy, including investing in supports for students from historically marginalized communities to ensure their success. 
  • Making information easily accessible to all families so they are aware of their choices and how to exercise them.
  • Holding all education service providers accountable for learning outcomes. 
  • Collecting and making public disaggregated data on the number of students exercising choices, the types of choices students make, and student learning outcomes. 

Failure to prioritize equity and provide real options to students from historically marginalized communities risk exacerbating existing and historical inequities and opportunity gaps. As we celebrate National School Choice Week and continue expanding education options for families, it’s imperative that equity remains front and center. 

 

Three Ways Policymakers Can Expand Educational Options for Students

Children across the country are living through a tumultuous two years that have had an undeniable impact on their education and development. But the effects haven’t been felt evenly by all students. Declines in K-12 reading and math performance have been more pronounced in schools that serve lower-income communities and in schools that largely serve Black and Latino students. 

These inequities predate 2020, but it’s clear that the range and severity of student learning needs amid the pandemic are significantly more complex than they were before COVID-19. America’s K-12 education system needs to respond with options that are diverse, flexible, and accessible to meet the varied educational needs of students and families moving forward. 

As described in Expanding Educational Options: Emergent Policy Trends by co-authors Lynne Graziano, Brian Robinson, Juliet Squire, and me, policymakers in states across the country have made meaningful progress to create and expand learning options for students on three fronts, but more must be done to make those opportunities equitable and accessible to all.

1. Expand Traditional School Choice Options

The first and most traditional front for expanding educational options is through expanded access to school choice options. This includes policies that increase opportunities within the public school system through charter schools and open enrollment. It could also take the form of policies that provide access to full-time learning options outside of the public sector through vouchers, tax credit scholarships, or policies to support home-schooling.

Recent legislation expanding access to school choice options tends to focus on increasing funding for private school choice programs and/or expanding student eligibility criteria for those programs. One example of this is Florida’s HB 7045, which both increased funding and expanded student eligibility for private school choice programs.

2. Provide Equitable Access for All Students

Second, policymakers are enacting legislation to reduce barriers that stand between students and already-available educational opportunities beyond their residentially assigned public school. 

States like Tennessee and West Virginia passed bills to reduce administrative barriers to improve the transparency and accessibility of open enrollment opportunities. Other states, like Arizona and Texas, passed legislation to reduce transportation barriers to improve student access to educational options. 

3. Enact More Flexible Learning Options

Finally, there is increasing policy support for more flexible learning options that provide students with opportunities to replace or supplement full-time schooling. Most recently, this has taken the form of states passing or expanding Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) that provide families with flexible funding to support tuition, tutoring, or other educational services for their children, like West Virginia’s HB 2013

Other states, like Georgia, have passed legislation to protect a pandemic-era innovation: learning pods. And Montana’s HB 246 creates opportunities for students to participate in and earn credit for work-based learning.

These policy innovations are welcome developments for families and students looking for more flexible and customized learning options, but much more needs to be done to ensure that these opportunities are available to all families. For instance, families need accurate and accessible information on the array of schooling options available for their children, and how to take advantage of them. Transportation and other logistical barriers still serve as insurmountable barriers for far too many families. And as more students are educated by an increasing number of providers, policymakers must consider how the ecosystem of K-12 educational entities can securely share data with one another to support a child’s success. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the complex and urgent needs students face; families deserve access to a wider range of educational opportunities to meet the specific needs of their children. Policymakers must act to better serve students’ needs moving forward.

An “Abundance Agenda” Must Include K-12 Schooling

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Scarcity is a familiar concept to economists, but most Americans don’t need to crack open a textbook to understand its impact right now. Walking through my local grocery store, there are barren produce displays and freezers with only a fraction of the products they typically stock. And I’ve had to scour the greater Louisville, Kentucky region to find at-home COVID-19 tests for sale.

In a thought-provoking new piece for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson argues that the problem of scarcity isn’t just limited to grocery stores and pharmacies it’s a societywide challenge that we ought to address.

“Altogether, America has too much venting and not enough inventing. We say that we want to save the planet from climate change — but in practice, many Americans are basically dead set against the clean-energy revolution, with even liberal states shutting down zero-carbon nuclear plants and protesting solar-power projects. We say that housing is a human right — but our richest cities have made it excruciatingly difficult to build new houses, infrastructure, or megaprojects. Politicians say that they want better health care — but they tolerate a catastrophically slow-footed FDA that withholds promising tools, and a federal policy that deliberately limits the supply of physicians.”

But there’s a significant sector missing from Thompson’s analysis of our scarcity challenge: K-12 education.

Public schooling is supposed to be a public good that provides equitable access to educational opportunities for all children, in the same way that public parks provide everyone with an opportunity to enjoy natural beauty in our communities.

For many families, however, access to a quality public education is an unfulfilled promise.

Scarcity in K-12 schooling is a much more opaque phenomenon than in higher education. We can easily monitor the ever-rising cost of college tuition, but most parents don’t pay tuition for K-12 schools. Instead, the “price” of attending public schools is embedded in rent or mortgage payments.

Affluent families have an abundance of educational options: they can afford to pay for tuition at private schools, buy a home in sought-after school districts, and provide their children with supplementary learning opportunities like tutoring, music lessons, and athletic programs.

Lower-income families face many more barriers to educational opportunity. Public schools are often their only educational option. As my colleagues and I showed in Priced Out of Public Schools, they also face scarcity in public schooling opportunities due to a combination of where affordable rental housing is located and how school district boundaries are drawn.

Thompson argues for a national “abundance agenda” to address problems created by scarcity. In K-12 education, that could mean an expansion of educational opportunities, particularly for lower-income families.

There are systemic ways to achieve abundance in educational opportunities. We could tackle reforms to update district boundaries more frequently — similar to how we engage in redistricting for legislative seats — to provide better, more equitable access to public K-12 schooling opportunities. Other efforts could expand access to nonpublic education options, as 18 states did in 2021.

Reformers can also expand educational opportunities within the public school system more incrementally through public charter schools. A recently-announced $750 million grant-making effort to support the expansion of public charter schools could serve as a catalyst for a broader reinvigoration of the charter sector, as my colleague Andy Rotherham notes in his latest for The 74.

For too long, families have not had access to the schooling options their children deserve. An “abundance agenda” for educational opportunity has the potential to garner support from the left, right, and center of our increasingly polarized nation and, more importantly, to provide children with equitable access to the public schools they deserve.