Traditional measurements of student success are supplemented by new approaches

The recently enacted Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includes accountability measures that clearly differentiate it from the No Child Left Behind Act. To find out what these new accountability mandates mean for secondary school principals, we convened a roundtable in August consisting of Daria Hall, interim vice president for government affairs and communications with The Education Trust in Washington, D.C.; Mark Korcinsky, principal of Seneca Valley Senior High School in Harmony, PA, and the state NASSP coordinator for the Pennsylvania Principals Association; and Molly Spearman, South Carolina state superintendent of education. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the session.

Levin-Epstein: What are the major issues in ESSA accountability that secondary school principals should know about?

Hall: ESSA creates a real opportunity for states to build new accountability systems that reflect lessons from the past. It allows state leaders to move away from some of the components of accountability that have become problematic or outdated (such as an exclusive focus on test scores and graduation rates) and away from a set of prescribed interventions for all schools regardless of the needs of a particular school. 

ESSA also creates real risks. If equity does not remain a central focus of these new accountability systems, states and local communities could become complacent and not undertake the work of raising achievement for all students, particularly low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English learners who are too often underserved in our nation’s schools. Secondary school principals and all educators need to be aware of key decisions that their states are making, including what indicators will be used for school accountability ratings, for needs assessment and diagnosis, and for public reporting. They need to make their voices heard on how those data will be used, including what kind of actions will be taken when a school is under­performing, for students either overall or for any particular group of students.

Korcinsky: For a secondary school principal, one of the first things that comes to mind is state assessments, which serve as a barometer of whether or not students are on track to meet the requirements. The current assessment system is very time- and resource-​intensive and is implemented at different times during the school year. Second, there are accountability goals set by either the states or the federal government, and that works into educator evaluation. The provisions in ESSA have reduced that burden on the teachers in terms of producing data, but it has not eliminated it, and so many states still have that requirement. Finally, it really does impact the highly qualified teacher requirements, so that obviously would impact staffing. In addition, we’re looking for guidance on certification.

Spearman: In South Carolina, we’re very excited about the opportunities that ESSA brings. We are merging the federal and state accountability systems into one, which will benefit our educators, principals, parents, and community. We will have the flexibility to match our accountability system to what our mission is—the profile of the 21st-century graduate—which means that we are measuring students on their content knowledge in English language arts and math. It also gives us flexibility for what we need to do in terms of performance measures in science, social studies, and the arts. We’re also focusing on how to measure whether our graduates are prepared with the skills and the characteristics they need in order to be college and career ready. So, new indicators, new college- and career-ready indicators, are very important for us. 

One thing principals need to be aware of is that the law does require us to always report the bottom 5 percent, in terms of performing schools. I think one of the challenges for principals and for those of us at the State Department of Education is all of the new subgroups that need to be identified, including a new group-the military.

Levin-Epstein: I want to follow up on what Molly’s doing in South Carolina and ask whether or not other states are following that concept—that you would integrate the federal and state accountability mandate, and that you would attempt to match it to the mission of the schools.

Hall: Looking across states, some certainly have had two separate accountability systems, a federal and a state. Many others have had one. We think that having one system is absolutely the right way to go. It communicates clear expectations and doesn’t require educators and the public to look at two different systems to figure out how their school is doing and what needs to change. There needs to be one clear set of expectations, and then states and school districts can align supports, resources, and action to that one clear system.

Korcinsky: It’s challenging to get consensus among states on the metric to be used to meet goals.

Levin-Epstein: Let’s talk more about the lower-performing schools.

Spearman: In South Carolina, there is a need for some financial support that goes to those schools and for technical support. One of the failures of the past has been that we have purchased programs that were going to “fix” those schools, and people would be involved for two or three years and then leave, and then we find those schools in the same situation. In South Carolina, we’re focusing on the technical support that we can send in to those schools to build the capacity for those local communities.

Hall: The law itself does not prescribe specific improvement actions for schools that are identified as in need of support and intervention. It does say that schools and districts should work together to develop improvement plans, and that those plans ought to include a look at the inequities in resources that may drive under­performance. Once a school is identified, it’s critical that educators understand the cause of the identification so they can respond appropriately. I do want to add that the law does not just require reporting and action for the bottom 5 percent, it also requires that any school that has a subgroup of students—be that low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, or English learners—that is consistently under­performing must also be clearly reported, and that school and its district must take steps to support and improve performance for those particular groups of students.

Korcinsky: ESSA challenges states to consider comprehensive and holistic measures of school and student success within an accountability system, which the states are now considering. In addition to the 5 percent, there may be other schools that have factors, such as poverty, so we need to consider those as well in terms of accountability.

Spearman: It’s important to involve the community as well. Some of the information that we might need from communities is difficult for us to get because we’re not able to segregate it through the required subgroups.

Hall: I would add that in order to really accomplish that, communities—and in particular the communities that are most impacted by underperformance (communities of color and low-income communities)—need to be at the table from the very beginning in terms of crafting state ESSA plans. That’s a way to ensure that their voices are heard, and that they will and can be meaningful partners in implementation for years to come.

Levin-Epstein: What should principals use as measurements beyond test scores?

Hall: It’s important to remember that the law does require, as Molly said, that any indicator that is used in a school rating system can be disaggregated for each group of students. So, when thinking about how that could play out for a high school, we all agree that rigorous coursework is an important part of college and career readiness. But, the number of AP courses offered at a school can’t be disaggregated, and therefore can’t be included. States can, however, include the rates at which groups of students within a school are accessing and being successful in AP courses. Another indicator that can be disaggregated and correlates strongly with both academic achievement and high school graduation is chronic absenteeism.

Spearman: Daria, you’re right on. I think it’s a great opportunity but also a challenge to measure new things. We’re looking at student engagement surveys, using performance tasks, and narrative reporting on the leadership opportunities that schools provide students.

Korcinsky: I want to add that we don’t yet know the definition of “substantial” and exactly what weight to give academic versus nonacademic factors.

Hall: One clarification: The law requires, in addition to test scores, graduation rates, and English language proficiency for English learners, an additional indicator of school quality or student success that could, in fact, be an academic measure. So, it’s not necessarily a nonacademic one.

Levin-Epstein: Suppose a secondary school developed an outstanding arts education program. What would that mean in terms of measurement and accountability under ESSA?

Spearman: In South Carolina, and probably Pennsylvania as well, we are definitely looking at that, and as a former arts teacher, I would say that if those students were successful in the arts, I bet they’re also going to be very successful in math and sciences as well. We are looking to give significant credit for being successful in those areas.

Korcinsky: The states must choose at least one other factor that addresses student opportunity to learn, and so, student engagement in those programs or access [to those programs] could factor in. As I think Daria said, advanced coursework or even just the school climate, that’s the definition that still is to be determined. But having access to those opportunities would be a metric that would be beneficial.

Spearman: I think one thing that ESSA is giving us is the opportunity to really focus on the passions and the talents of students. A student like you just mentioned in the arts, we’re wanting them to be college and career ready—their passion and their focus area may be in the arts, and we should give credit for that and celebrate that versus saying that it is only math and English language arts [that count], as under No Child Left Behind. 

Hall: I do think it’s important to point out that any accountability indicators have to be statewide, meaning that they apply consistently to all schools within a state. So, that’s going to bring along with it some real challenges in terms of developing good measures and getting good data. That’s something state leaders need to be mindful of as they decide what the new indicators could and should be. It’s not just, “Do state leaders believe that adding a certain indicator is the right thing to do?” It’s also, “Do they have the capacity and the resources to execute it well?”

Spearman: That’s right, Daria. And in South Carolina we really have to focus and remind ourselves of that, because we’re a state like most that has a very wide range of school communities where in some areas we can offer a significant array of classes, such as AP courses, while small, rural areas may not have that ability.

Levin-Epstein: How are secondary school principals reaching out to faculty and parents to explain ESSA?

Spearman: I’ll share with you what I’ve seen here in South Carolina. In our department, we’re very involved in engaging all stakeholders—teachers, principals, parents, and business leaders. I have seen that same level of engagement with our professional associations, who are out holding community meetings. But I think the message right now is just getting it out to parents through our principals saying there is a new system, it’s different, we believe it’s going to be much better, much more common sense, and on target with what we’re trying to achieve at our schools. So, I see principals doing that. And I hope that they are moving quickly to involve parents. We set up a website in South Carolina ( I’ve been out talking about it, asking principals to announce this to their faculties, to their parents, that they can give comments, suggestions, and answer questions about how we build this new system in South Carolina. Through cooperation of the principals, I definitely see that happening.

Korcinsky: In Pennsylvania, our secretary of education has set up a work group, and there are principals that are sitting with parents, with policy­makers, with stakeholders within the group, nonprofits, and so forth. The answer is not in effect until 2017, and so our state is working through some of the challenges and issues so that we can get that information back to the federal government. There is a grassroots opportunity for the information to be shared. But, in terms of a number of local secondary principals as well as elementary principals sharing it, it would be on an individual basis. It is all-encompassing, and yet we still don’t have some of the answers because we have to submit that plan. But overall, there is a sentiment that it has removed some constraints that No Child Left Behind created for us. Working with this work group really has provided an opportunity for parents and stakeholders to be informed as well as to be included in some of the decision making.

Hall: I would reiterate the importance of having representatives from the civil rights community, the business community, the disability community to all be at the table as these decisions are being made. That is the best way to ensure shared responsibility and ownership of these new systems and shared commitment to achieving the goals that these systems lay out.

Spearman: I just wanted to share this with you: I was involved at the beginning of the summer with a forum with a National Education Association affiliate here in South Carolina, where we were in a local community, and those teachers actually went out and knocked on doors and invited parents to come to a session that evening. We had a tremendous turnout of community folks [and] parents to talk about ESSA, to educate them about the possibilities, and to seek their input. There are a lot of things going on that are good. We need to do more. We started on our accountability plan a little earlier, even before ESSA had passed. We were already working through the old waiver system to write a new system, so we’re a little bit further along. We do have those stakeholder groups that have met, principals have participated in those groups as well as all the other folks who need to be there—parents and community leaders, business leaders, civil rights leaders—so it’s been good. But right now we’re really pushing to get more comments, as I mentioned, for folks to know that anybody, whether they’re able to come to a meeting or not, anybody’s able to submit ideas or ask questions through our website.

Levin-Epstein: What one piece of advice do you have for principals in terms of implementing ESSA accountability?

Korcinsky: I would say, pay attention to the growth and progress in all areas of your school, no matter whether it’s a single-digit metric or it’s an encompassing educator engagement. That way all of the stakeholders are involved, and not just the stakeholders in math, language arts, and potentially science. But, bottom line, focus on the kids.

Spearman: Yes. It’s to focus always on what’s right for students, and let’s get it right this time. Dream big, and let’s write the plan the way we really believe it best serves the students of our state.

Hall: I would say, take seriously the responsibility to pay attention to and act on the performance of all groups of kids, particularly those who have for too long been overlooked and underserved by our systems: low-income students, students with disabilities, English learners, and students of color.