Progress on State Accountability Plans; Capacity Challenges

The Department of Education has provided initial feedback to almost all the states that submitted their ESSA accountability plans in fall 2017. States have been asked to clarify elements of their plans or fix problems. How many states will actually make changes remain to be seen, as does the capacity and intent of the Department to monitor the plans once they have been approved.  A survey report from the Center on Education Policy has a lot to say about how the state education agencies view ESSA and their capacity to meet its requirements.

All of the state ESSA accountability plans have now been submitted to the Department of Education. Of the 17 plans submitted in the first round, all but Colorado, who asked for an extension, have been approved.  The approval plans and supporting information for each state can be found here.  The Department is also largely finished with providing feedback on the second batch of 35 plans that were submitted in the fall of 2017. The interim feedback letters and peer review notes for 33 states are now posted at the same site.

Department feedback on the second batch of state plans is often focused on getting a clearer picture of how English-language proficiency will factor into school ratings, how states plan to ensure an equitable distribution of highly-qualified teachers, and ensuring that academic factors will carry much greater weight than school quality factors in determining ratings. It’s not clear that the states will agree to the changes the Department wants or if it will make any difference in securing approval of their plans. First round states did provide more clarification on issues, but a number did not make asked-for changes. In the end, I’m not sure how much it all matters, since it’s not clear to me how the Department will monitor plan implementation. There’s a lot of variability from plan to plan, complicating efforts to provide technical assistance and monitoring and the Department is understaffed and planning further reductions in staffing.

I still think there is valuable information in the state plans, but before reading through all 50 plans, publishers and education marketers might want to take advantage of several resources that have done their own analysis and summary reports. Bellwether Education Partners, in partnership with the Collaborative for Student Success, convened two rounds of independent peer reviews of the state plans. They have compiled best practices by category at  A more qualitative overview report can be found here.

AIR has compiled very succinct and standardized state profiles that summarize each state plan.

The Fordham Institute also has done a highly focused analysis that examines the state plans and assesses whether they are strong or weak (or in-between) along three dimensions: assigning annual ratings to schools that are clear and intuitive;  encouraging schools to focus on all students, not just their low performers; and fairly measuring and judging all schools, including those with high rates of poverty.

For me, one of the most interesting related resources is a report from the Center on Education Policy that presents the finding from a fall 2017 survey of state deputy education superintendents or their designees from 45 state education agencies. CEP points out that although many state education leaders like having greater control over key education decisions as a result of ESSA, all but one said their state lacks sufficient funding, staffing, or expertise to carry out one or more key requirements of the law.

  • SEA officials in 29 states say that ESSA has shifted control from the federal government to state and local education agencies, and 21 of these 29 saw this shift as a positive development.
  • Officials in 23 of the 45 responding states said their SEA had a heavier workload under ESSA than under NCLB.
  • In many cases, this strain on state capacity has been coupled with inadequate federal funds for state administration. Officials in 19 states said their SEA did not have adequate federal funding to administer ESSA.

The survey also found that the Trump Administration’s withdrawal of many federal regulations and written guidance for ESSA has some state officials looking for clearer directions from the U.S. Department of Education.

  • 25 of the state survey respondents said the written ESSA guidance is too little or lacking in detail
  • 16 state officials found the current ESSA guidance helpful, 10 said it was not helpful
  • 35 state officials reported having sought assistance on ESSA from current Department officials, such as asking for clarifications of ESSA policy or intent and 26 of these state officials found the Department to be responsive.

State education agencies are facing very real capacity issues. I picked the requirement below from a broader set of implementation requirements because they clearly reflect the challenges the states face.  While SEAs always feel they need more funding (as do districts and schools), they also need more staffing especially if they hope to monitor and supply technical assistance to their schools most in need of improvement. They also need additional expertise especially in areas related to evidence-based interventions and figuring out ways to ensure that all students have access to highly-qualified teachers. There are real opportunities for organizations that can support SEAs in carrying out specific elements of their ESSA implementation.


*Comprehensive support and improvement (CSI) schools include the lowest-performing 5% of Title I schools in the state and

high schools that graduate one-third or fewer of their students
**Targeted support and improvement (TSI) schools are public schools with one or more consistently under-performing subgroups of students.

*** This is an optional activity under ESSA. Twelve states indicated that they were not going to take this option.

There’s more useful information in this report that can help companies that serve the school market identify the challenges that states face as they move forward with ESSA.