The future of accountability under ESSA

Children, going to the first grade

On July 27, the Brown Center on Education Policy hosted a discussion on the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act. The panel was moderated by Arne Duncan, nonresident senior fellow with the Brown Center and former U.S. Secretary of Education for the Obama administration. The other two panelists were Hanseul Kang, State Superintendent of Education for the District of Columbia, and Chris Minnich, Executive Director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The No Child Left Behind Act: What Has Been Learned

Following a brief introduction from Brown Center Director Michael Hansen, the panel launched into a discussion of the predecessor to ESSA, the No Child Left Behind act. Mr. Minnich spoke highly of the continued testing mandate of NCLB under ESSA. He stated that NCLB was crucial in instigating state collection of student achievement data and disaggregation of data to identify achievement gaps, declaring

that “we cannot go back to a time where we don’t have information on how schools are doing.” However, Mr. Minnich also urged states to learn from their struggles under NCLB, particularly state communication of information and expectations to schools and parents. He recalled that under NCLB several state agencies successfully began to track school performance and demanded that underperforming schools provide plans to raise student achievement, but failed to provide resource support or follow up on implementation. ESSA should give states an opportunity to provide more flexibility and support to fix those problems of the past.

The panelists additionally spoke to the power of higher, clearly defined, standards that were promoted during Race to the Top and the NCLB waiver period. Ms. Kang attributed rapid DC Public School achievement growth to teachers adapting to new standards by changing the types of teaching and learning taking place in classrooms. One example was a new writing assessment that asked students to analyze texts, rather than free-write an imaginative narrative. Ms. Kang described classroom practices focused on reading, discussing, and analytically writing about texts just a few years after adoption of the new assessment. Mr. Minnich concurred with the support for higher standards, remarking that the states that have established clear, higher, standards have seen students rise to the challenge and drive state-wide progress in student achievement.

The Ideal Accountability System

Under ESSA, states will be taking greater control of accountability systems. So what would an ideal accountability system look like? The panelists began by describing the dangers of having too many or too few metrics of student achievement. Under NCLB, a single proficiency standard was used to measure student progress. With so much weight on this one indicator, states were incentivized to push schools and districts to solely chase after higher proficiency rates in reading and math. Yet a system with fifteen to twenty metrics is easily just as ineffective, leading to confusion with unclear educational priorities. Thus, Mr. Minnich explains, an effective accountability system would be holistic while still focusing on clear priorities. Districts should first decide what they value and what improvements they want to see in their schools, and based on these established values, pick three or four clear metrics to focus on. These may include proficiency, growth, graduation rates, student engagement, and college or career-readiness. A limited number of such clear metrics would be easy to report and communicate clearly to schools, parents, and communities.

States will also have to decide on a balance between input-based metrics and output-based metrics. As Ms. Kang said, there is likely no magic proportion between the two, and indeed a large benefit of ESSA is in allowing states to design their accountability measures around their individual contexts. But to inform decisions, states will need a balance of both. Mr. Minnich explained “input metrics tell you how to improve; output metrics tell you where you are.” Both are clearly crucial to the task of identifying problems in school systems and solving them.

Addressing the Achievement Gap

Another important topic for states will be the achievement gap. The panelists agreed that states need to acknowledge historical underinvestment in education resources for certain minority racial groups and establish a dedicated commitment to now overinvesting in children from disadvantaged situations. Ms. Kang discussed the DC Publics Schools’ At-Risk Fund, a new category of spending dedicated to providing additional support for students considered at risk due to factors such as poverty, foster care, or homelessness. Mr. Duncan further discussed the challenge of local, property-tax-based school funding as a contribution to unequal resources and student achievement. He raised the idea of monetary incentives to attract the best faculty and staff to work in high-need schools, underscoring the need for states to overinvest in disadvantaged children and their schools to compensate for at-risk factors.

More Work to be Done

Even after states establish their educational priorities and accountability systems, more questions will have to be answered. How districts will work to raise student achievement matters. For example, focusing on underperforming schools is necessary, but using high-performing and high-growth schools as exemplary models can help districts define what they are aiming for. For effective implementation and a smooth transition from NCLB, states will need to communicate expectations and available support clearly with districts and schools. States will also need to decide what to do when new data, potential metrics, and methods of change are available. Teacher certification and renewal, for example, could prove a useful tool in impacting teaching processes for higher student achievement. It falls to states to determine how they will respond to their increasing quantities of information and new responsibilities.

With the end of NCLB and the beginning of ESSA, there is clearly much work to be done. As Ms. Kang put it, “the power is not just in having information, but how the system should be designed.” How states choose to design new accountability systems will clearly be a large development in years to come.

Full video of the event can be found at

Helen Zhang contributed to this post.