In ESSA Implementation, No More Three-Card Monte

Five months ago, we joined civil rights and education organizations across the country to support the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The bill isn’t perfect—but it does broadly promise that every child should have access to a high quality education. We can all agree that’s the right goal. But the devil’s in the details. How well the law delivers on that promise will depend on the many rules that are now being set for implementation.

The rulemaking process represents an important opportunity for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to hold the line on equity for all kids. ESSA puts the bulk of educational choices and responsibilities on states and local communities—and offers states a lot of flexibility in the process. But equal protection for children isn’t up to states alone. As implementation plays out differently in different places, everyone—from ED to states to local education authorities to organizations like ours—has a shared responsibility to make sure no students get lost in the process.

A case in point: For the last several years, many states have used their NCLB waivers to play a troubling game of Three Card Monte, in which the most vulnerable students were often shuffled out of view. Although the previous law required states to monitor academic achievement of “economically disadvantaged students; students from major racial and ethnic groups; students with disabilities; and students with limited English proficiency,” a 2013 report showed that too many states were finding ways to hide or ignore certain groups of students.

Under waivers, at least half of the states combined subgroups into “super-subgroups,” and at least 14 states completely removed one or more subgroups. One state lumped together Native, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged English language learners, and students with disabilities into one group called a “Gap Group.” Others combined subgroups into “below proficient” or “lowest-performing,” without any consideration of racial or economic status, learning ability, or language proficiency. 

Lumping all disabled students into one subgroup, as if students with special learning needs or physical or emotional needs all face the same barriers to equity and success is hard enough to justify. Lumping together a large number of student groups—all of whom are being poorly served—furthers a destructive narrative that “these kids” can’t succeed. None of us should allow that fallacious story to be told. It’s an example of how our country’s shameful history of educational inequity keeps repeating itself.

The ESSA regulations—especially those on accountability—can help break this cycle. ED has already developed strong draft language around how states should measure academic progress, but it’s critical that the regulations also set the right guidelines about whose progress needs to be measured.

This shouldn’t require any creative thinking. The law requires states to assess schools through “annual meaningful differentiation,” for “all students and for each subgroup of students.” The intent here is clearly that states should monitor how well all children are being set on a path to college and career readiness. This requires breaking out information on student progress into “subgroups” to ensure no group of students is ignored or allowed to fall behind without the state knowing about it—and therefore being able to take action to address it.

That’s exactly what the regulations should reflect. We call on ED to ensure that the rules require states to monitor the growth of all students toward college and career readiness. There must be no room for hiding some groups of students within large pools of super-subgroups, or using broad averages and percentages instead of identifying schools and students whom state and local leaders need to take action to protect.

As Senator Murray said at the nomination hearing for Secretary of Education John King, “This new law gives states more flexibility, but also includes strong federal guardrails to make sure every student has access to a high quality education.”

To live up to that expectation, details matter. Let’s get them right.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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