ESSA, Accountability, and High-Achieving Students

Happy Friday, fellow policy explorers. I usually try to let you off easy on Friday afternoons when it comes to policy discussions, but this week’s ridiculous distractions in Douglas County forced me to push back a post I’ve been meaning to do for a while about ESSA and how it relates to high-performing students. With the next ESSA Hub Committee meeting scheduled for this coming Monday, it seems appropriate to talk about that interesting issue sooner rather than later. Plus, there’s no such thing as a bad day for policy discussions!

A big focus of the ESSA conversation has been on accountability systems. What will we measure? For whom? How? When? What about weights? In Colorado, we just had a major conversation about the notion of combined subgroups and what they might mean for accountability systems.

All these discussions tend to revolve around how we best help lower-performing kids, schools, and districts. And don’t get me wrong, that’s an incredibly important question for those of us who view education as an opportunity to provide every kid with a chance at a fair fight and an opportunity to build his or her own success story.

But what about the other side of the spectrum? What about our highest-performing students? Is there an opportunity in ESSA to incentivize more attention on those students? The Fordham Institute seems to think so based on a recent report entitled “High Stakes for High Achievers: State Accountability in the Age of ESSA.”

Chester Finn recently wrote about the issue in an Education Next blog post highlighting the Fordham report. He starts by saying that there are good reasons to focus on lower-performing students, but then adds that:

… it should not be the only focus. The policy challenge going forward is to devise accountability systems that raise the ceiling as well as the floor. This is partly about fairness: It’s wrong for any child to miss out on academic challenges at school, and we should do everything we can to develop the full potential of all our students, including high achievers. We must also remember, though, that the country’s future economic competitiveness, scientific leadership, and national security depend disproportionately on how successfully we maximize the learning of our ablest children. If we want tomorrow’s scientists, entrepreneurs, and inventors to “look like America,” our schools need to take special pains with the education of high-ability kids from disadvantaged circumstances. They, too, should have the chance to realize the American Dream.

There’s a political argument as well. How can we expect parents to support public education when many of their children aren’t a priority for the schools they attend?

And there’s a powerful case to be made for accelerating social mobility by educating high-ability, low-income children. These are the poor kids—many of them from minority groups—who have the best chance to succeed in selective universities, become leaders in their communities, and climb the ladder to the middle class. Yet they are also the kids most dependent on the education system to recognize and draw out their potential. Research from Fordham, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, and elsewhere shows that these low-income “high flyers” are likeliest to “lose altitude” as they make their way through school. The result is an “excellence gap” rivaling the “achievement gaps” that have been our policy preoccupation.

It’s hard to argue with Finn on many of those points. I’ve found myself spending a lot of time recently thinking about what Colorado could do to improve things for the kids at the upper end of the academic spectrum. After all, every child deserves to be pushed to his or her full potential regardless of where on the bell curve that potential falls. We’ve all heard the horror stories about the brilliant kid in the back of the classroom who is forced into absently doodling or daydreaming because he isn’t being challenged by the material.

There are serious benefits to supporting and further developing high achievers. Who knows which of these kiddos might be the one to cure cancer, or lead our nation, or find alien life, or develop one of those awesome food-making machines from Star Trek.

So. Very. Awesome.

But how to we start thinking about how to move the system toward paying more attention to high-performing students? Fordham argues that stronger accountability systems have brought about some success in lifting the performance of the targeted subgroups (many would argue on that point), and that doing the same for high-performing students could be similarly beneficial. To that end, the report proposes the following four accountability tweaks for states putting together their plans under ESSA:

  • For the first academic indicator required by ESSA (“academic achievement”), reward schools for getting more students to an “advanced” level.
  • For the second academic indicator expected by ESSA (“student growth”), rate schools using a “true growth model,” i.e., one that looks at the progress of individual students at all achievement levels and not just those who are low-performing or below the “proficient” line.
  • Include “gifted students” (or “high-achieving students”) as a subgroup, and report their results separately.
  • When determining summative school ratings, make “growth for all students” count for at least half of the rating.

The good news is that Colorado is already doing the things recommended under points two and four above. The Colorado Growth Model uses median growth percentiles to compare students to their academic peers, regardless of how high- or low-performing those students are.  We also include overall growth among all students as at least 50 percent of school ratings—though I should stipulate that this is only true at the elementary and middle school level. Growth for all students only accounts for 35 percent of high school ratings. I’m not sure if Fordham just missed that important caveat, though I couldn’t blame them if they did. The SPF system isn’t exactly easy to understand or navigate.

As for the other two suggestions, I’ll admit that I’m interested in the idea of a separate subgroup for gifted or high-achieving students. There would undoubtedly be some huge classification issues there (and maybe some perverse incentives if not done carefully), but it might not be impossible. It’s an idea worth chewing on.

I’m far less enthused about the idea of providing extra points for “advanced” scores on state tests, particularly because those point-in-time scores can be so heavily biased by demography. I’d be a lot more interested in a conversation about how the idea of rewarding schools for moving students into the highest performance brackets in terms of academic growth. We sort of already have a system for this through our use of adequate growth percentiles and the catching up, keeping up, moving up system, but there may be some interesting discussions to be had about how and whether that system is working—and whether it could or should be modified.

All told, the jury’s still out when it comes to my opinion on Fordham’s suggestions themselves. I’m not convinced the best solution here is to further complicate an already complicated system that’s tough for parents to understand as it stands today. However, I appreciate the reminder that we ought to be focusing on—and holding schools accountable for—the academic success of every single student, not just those who are low performing or disadvantaged.

Have a great weekend. I’ll see you next week!