kids in the classroom


How ESSA Accountability is Changing for the Better

Monika Kincheloe

For many, high school represents a period of about four years when lots of learning happens – both for young people and the adults who support them. The arc of the school year is pretty predictable – classes, friendships, winter break, midterms, things start to click, finals, and then at long last summer break. 

This school year, for the first time, school administrators learned whether their institution had been identified as a school in need of support under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Being identified for comprehensive or targeted supports under federal law sets off a cascade of actions unique to each state, but there are some commonalities. There will be needs assessments, interventions planning, and in extreme cases, large-scale changes in staffing or curriculum. But before support comes the rationale for how schools were identified – something that looked different this year. 

While we do not believe that focusing on academics alone is sufficient for young people’s success in school and life, we thought a good first step would be to review ESSA state plans to see how new accountability systems are shifting to reflect the high school experience. 

Changes in high school accountability

For the first time, schools are being measured by more than just standardized test performance. Schools are now assessed by their graduation rates, growth in standardized test scores, English language proficiency, and a variety of student- and school-based metrics, such as absenteeism and AP test performance. In some states, the number of metrics used to assess schools exceeds 15 criteria. In addition, any high school with a graduation rate of 67 percent or below is automatically identified for support.

On one hand, the metrics are not all that different because standardized test scores remain a significant component in the accountability calculus. No doubt, when it comes to school, academics should be central. On the other hand, including metrics beyond test scores brings the system closer to reflecting the actual high school experience. When we start to focus on metrics that unveil what young people need beyond reading, writing, math, and science, we get closer to the real purpose of accountability: elevating the areas of the education system that need focused and deliberate supports. 

interactive mapThirty-five states are including extended-year graduation rates, which gives well-earned credit to schools that graduate young people in five or six years. And 38 states and the District of Columbia incorporated some measure of college or career readiness as measured by AP or IB test taking or performance, SAT or ACT test taking or performance, passing the military readiness test, or obtaining industry credentials, among many other measures. While 37 states and Washington, D.C. included a measure of chronic absenteeism, the most impactful works comes when those working in schools and the community uncover and support young people through the root causes of absenteeism. By comparison, just three states are using suspension data. Our partner, the Learning Policy Institute, created an interactive map depicting the various metrics and how they show up among the states. 

Accountability is a tool, not the full story

Community partners – like many of you in the Alliance – are uniquely positioned to support high schools identified for comprehensive supports. Accountability metrics come together to serve a powerful but at times daunting message to high schools: there is more that young people in your school need. Yet, schools should not – and increasingly are not expected to – be alone in meeting young people’s needs. 

Under ESSA, interventions are localized like never before, so there is incredible opportunity to do what young people need to learn and thrive. With this context in mind, there are three things worth noting as the education system eases out of older mindsets:

  1. Do not limit yourself to what you think is permitted. Get creative and come together – school leaders, youth, parents and families, with partner organizations – to prioritize youth needs. Consider the relationships that adolescent learners need to thrive. Consider that meeting the health, social, and emotional needs of youth will unlock their ability to thrive academically and in life. 
  2. The intense pressure schools felt before ESSA may lessen, but this should be balanced by local vigilance and collaboration to do what young people need. We work with community organizations, such as Promesa Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, CA and Better Together Central Oregon, who work hand-in-hand with their school districts to provide community-level accountability for results. 
  3. Being identified for comprehensive support occurs at least on three-year cycles, which should introduce some breathing room to commit to a set of activities for high school learners and see results. Teachers and school leaders are already under immense pressures – let’s collectively create an environment in which they have the time and space to meet the well-rounded needs of high schoolers. 

High school is about more than tests and graduation

School accountability and professional athletes have a lot in common. Sports commentators and fans measure the success of an athlete, such as tennis player Serena Williams, by the number of Grand Slam singles titles she has won (23) and the speed of her serve (128.6 mph). But those stats do not say anything about other factors that lead to her success like what she eats, her time doing high-intensity workouts, or the music that pumps her up. 

Even new state accountability systems under ESSA include performance metrics that do not immediately shed light on the quality of teacher-student interactions, whether students feel welcome at school, or diploma rigor. Young people are growing in all parts of their lives, not just test taking towards graduation, and on multiple dimensions, not just academic. As accountability metrics inch closer to reflecting the whole child, we should all take advantage of the opportunity to do what learners need to succeed in high school and life after school.