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This article was updated Jan. 19 to include action by the State Board of Education. See inset to the story.

Despite significant criticisms last month by the U.S. Department of Education,  California will likely make clarifications but no substantial changes to the state’s plan for complying with the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal law that requires states to improve low-achieving schools.

At its meeting on Thursday, the State Board of Education is expected to adopt wording changes and elaborations while keeping most of the 100-plus page document intact. During a meeting for education organizations that was webcast last week, David Sapp, deputy policy director and assistant legal counsel for the State Board of Education, acknowledged that federal reviewers’ questions and doubts had led staff to provide “more context” to the state’s “minimalist” approach to writing the plan.

But he and others said they were confident the plan would be approved after submitting more details, perhaps with more back and forth with the U.S. Department of Education in coming months.

The department has approved 26 state plans, including 11 plans this week, and has sent letters with questions and criticisms to California and the remaining states.

States must implement the law starting this fall. Its main requirement is that states show how they will improve the performance of low-income students, English learners, foster youths and homeless students, along with the worst-achieving schools they attend. In exchange, California would receive about $2.6 billion in federal funding, mainly Title 1 dollars intended for programs for low income children.

A bipartisan Congress gave states more flexibility in choosing how to perform the work when they passed the law in 2015 as a successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, and Sapp, in an interview, said California’s plan is both sound and legal.

The staff response to the federal critique reiterated the state board’s guidelines for writing the state plan:

  • It should be based on the Local Control Funding Formula, the 2013 state law that Gov. Jerry Brown championed, which redistributes more money to high-needs students. The funding formula also lays out a multi-dimensional approach to school improvement, including school climate, student engagement, preparation for college and careers and test scores.
  • The funding law’s criteria for evaluating school district performance and monitoring improvement should also be applied to low-performing schools identified under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Uniformity would avoid confusion from separate state and federal accountability systems, as happened under the No Child Left Behind Act. The state board has repeatedly said it wants to avoid a recurrence.
  • Just as the funding formula gives school districts wide latitude to decide how to narrow achievement gaps for low-performing ethnic, racial and other student groups, districts should have discretion over the timing and methods of turning around the 5 percent of lowest-performing schools in the state and high schools with low graduation rates covered by the law.

But in his letter, Jason Botel, principal deputy assistant secretary under U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, found flaws in the state’s plan and indicated that the state plan and the federal law don’t mesh the way the state board says they should.

Underlying a key technical criticism raised by the letter is a fundamental policy difference. Botel questioned whether the California School Dashboard, the linchpin of accountability under the state system, could be applied to federal requirements for selecting the state’s 300 lowest-performing schools and for measuring their progress.

The dashboard is a color matrix that rates school, district and student group performance on each measure, which currently includes math and English language arts test scores, graduation rates, suspension rates, and progress of English learners toward language proficiency. The fall 2018 revision will include measures of chronic absenteeism and students’ readiness for college and careers.

The dashboard combines annual scores and, for most indicators, the rate of improvement or decline over the previous year  — a concept fundamental to California’s system. But that approach doesn’t comply with the federal law that wants yearly results distinctly reported, Botel wrote.

Botel also requested more clarity on the long-term and interim goals for school improvement. The state’s draft plan says that low-performing schools will have seven years to reach the green performance level, the second-highest color rating, on every indicator but that districts will set their own interim goals. Staff elaborate on this point in the proposed response: Districts will document progress in an addendum to their Local Control and Accountability Plan, an annual planning and budget document known as LCAP. The board hasn’t yet written requirements for the addendum.

But in a Jan. 12 letter to the board, the LCFF Equity Coalition, consisting of 17 student advocacy and civil rights groups, said the state board’s position on holding schools accountable for interim progress is inadequate. “Our experience with LCAPs is that the local-established goals are exceedingly modest, often capable of producing ‘green’ performance only after 20 years or more. If the State is going to rely on the local LCAP process for setting the called-for ‘ambitious’ goals under ESSA, at a minimum, the State Board needs to amend the LCAP template to direct (districts) that their goal-setting should address ESSA’s ambitious standards.” Members of the coalition include Public Advocates, Families in Schools, Children Now and EdVoice.

The coalition also criticized the plan’s failure to say what the state will do to address schools serving low-income and minority students with disproportionately high concentrations of unqualified and novice teachers. The state board said it plans to begin collecting data on teacher qualifications in 2019.

The state board hasn’t finished key elements of the plan, including criteria for selecting the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools receiving Title 1 funding for low-income students, about 300 schools. On Thursday, it will take a look at the latest proposal for using the dashboard to choose the schools, primarily designating those whose performance indicators were red and orange, the lowest two of the five color levels, on all or most of the indicators.

Districts with schools designated as needing “comprehensive assistance” would determine how to address low performance, although they would get guidance from their county office of education. Federal law requires the state to set aside 7 percent of its annual Title 1 funding — $122 million for California — for the 300 or so schools, about $400,000 each in additional money for those schools.

Irreconcilable issues?

The state board may have difficulty explaining away some disagreements.

The state is including test results of English learners who have been reclassified as proficient in English with other scores of English learners, which Botel said the law prohibits. The proposed state response gives the rationale for their inclusion.

Botel indicated the state should include the 11th-grade Smarter Balanced test results in math and English language arts with 3rd– to 8th-grade scores in determining a school’s academic indicator. Instead, the state board has included the 11th-grade results as one of many elements making up the college and career readiness indicator. The indicator would get a color rating but not test scores alone. The proposed staff response touts positive reviews of its college and career indicator but doesn’t directly address the 11th-grade test score issue.

Sapp said it was premature to say whether the state board would seek a waiver from the federal law on the 11th-grade test score issue and other disagreements. He characterized discussions with federal officials as “friendly and not confrontational.”

The state plans to resubmit its plan, with wording changes, by Jan. 26.

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