NCLB *Required* States to Look Beyond Reading and Math Proficiency. They Just Did It Poorly.

Yesterday I wryly noted that it’s weird to hear people say the new Every Student Succeeds Act gives states an “opportunity” to incorporate non-academic indicators in their accountability systems. In fact, ESSA requires it!

This isn’t even a new requirement. Although NCLB is lampooned for its focus on reading and math achievement, it also required states to hold schools accountable for “at least one other academic indicator, as determined by the State.” The law gave states wide discretion in picking additional indicators, and suggested a long list of possible options such as, “achievement on additional State or locally administered assessments, decreases in grade-to-grade retention rates, attendance rates, and changes in the percentages of students completing gifted and talented, advanced placement, and college preparatory courses.”

ESSA dropped the word “academic” and includes broader language requiring states to pick at least “one indicator of school quality or student success.” But given the wide latitude NCLB gave states and the long list of suggested ideas it offered, in practice there’s little difference between what was required under NCLB versus ESSA.

NCLB is history now, but it offers an important lesson going forward. Namely, states weren’t exactly innovative in deciding how to implement this requirement to create balanced accountability systems. 36 states and DC simply picked attendance rates (which had their own flaws), 6 states sliced their same reading and math achievement tests in different ways, 3 states let school districts choose their own measures, 1 state looked at school retention rates, and 4 states looked at test scores in other subjects (writing and science). If states were truly concerned about curriculum narrowing or over-testing or school environment issues, this was their opportunity to do something about it. And yet, they mostly chose not to.

We could see more of the same going forward. For all the talk about states developing new measures of “soft skills” because of ESSA, there’s nothing in the law that would force states to re-think their decisions on how to incorporate other indicators. I hope states take ESSA as an opportunity to upgrade their accountability systems, but history suggests many won’t.