Early last week, the Trump administration gave three states feedback on their submitted plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The nature of the comments varied for each state, but those addressed to Delaware inspired some fascinating debates around the rights and limitations of the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) under the new law.

Of particular interest is my colleague Mike Petrilli’s response to the Delaware feedback. He focused on two aspects of the USDOE’s response, in particular: 1) their suggestion that Delaware’s long-term goals for academic achievement weren’t “ambitious” enough and 2) their disapproval about Delaware’s inclusion of performance on AP and IB exams in its ”school quality or student success” indicator.

In reference to long-term goals, Mike argued:

The goals that Delaware submitted in its ESSA plan are extremely ambitious, almost irresponsibly so. In the course of a single generation of students, for example, Delaware is aiming to increase the math proficiency rate for Latino students from about 30 percent to about 65 percent. No state in the country has ever made that kind of progress—and that’s not ambitious enough?

He also pointed out that these kind of “utopian goals” were the driving force behind so many states and schools lowering their expectations in the No Child Left Behind era and more or less lying to families about their students’ abilities.

As for the second issue—the inclusion of performance on AP and IB exams—he notes that ESSA explicitly allows states to include student access and completion of advanced coursework as part of their School Quality or Student Success indicator. The USDOE flags as a potential problem including these exam results because not all high schools offer the courses and not all students participate in them—for the feds, it appears to be an issue of “statewide comparability.” But as Mike points out, the majority of college and career ready indicators available to schools fail that test. Even worse, if states follow the USDOE’s advice and focus on access to advanced courses but not performance, schools might “flood AP and IB courses with more kids, regardless of level of readiness, and then ignore the outcomes.”

For folks in Ohio, this debate may seem unimportant. Who cares what happens in Delaware—especially since we haven’t even submitted our own plan yet? But our still-in-process plan is exactly why we should care; Ohio plans to do much of what Delaware has already proposed. Take a look:

Delaware goals

Ohio goals

“To decrease the percentage of non-proficient students in each subgroup by 50 percent by the end of the 2030 school year, thereby reducing proficiency gaps in subgroups statewide.”

“Specifically, the significant progress desired, over the 10-year timeline, is for these gaps to be closed by at least 50 percent.”

For the College and Career Preparedness portion of the School Quality or Student Success indicator, the Delaware Department of Education will consider the following college preparedness options: a score of 3 or better on an AP exam; a score of 4 or better on an IB exam; postsecondary credit attainment with a B or higher; and meeting SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmarks in ELA, math, and writing (all Delaware juniors take the SAT). The indicator also includes career preparedness options, such as a obtaining an approved industry credential.

Ohio’s School Quality or Student Success indicator will be measured by chronic absenteeism/student discipline and the Prepared for Success component. Prepared for Success includes   scoring a 3 or higher on at least one AP test; scoring a 4 or higher on at least one IB test; earning at least 3 dual enrollment credits through College Credit Plus; earning a remediation –free score on a college entrance exam like the ACT or SAT (all Ohio juniors take the ACT); or earning an honors diploma. The indicator also acknowledges career preparedness via an industry-recognized credential

Given these similarities, it’s not hard to imagine that Ohio could be given the same feedback as Delaware. Since we’re still in the midst of revising our plan, should we take advantage of the opportunity to take into account the USDOE’s recommendations and make the changes to our plan that are being asked of The First State?

Nope. For starters, Mike is right that ESSA explicitly allows states to use access and completion of advanced coursework as an accountability indictor. He’s also right that ESSA doesn’t explicitly give the USDOE the authority to determine whether states’ goals are ambitious enough. ESSA mandates that long-term goals must be ambitious, but it also says that they will be state-designed. Given that the general theme of ESSA is to return power and control to the states, it’s reasonable to think that the term “state-designed” should mean “state designed.” Federal regulations would have been immensely helpful in this situation, but Congress and the Trump administration ditched  those back in March. Without the regulations—and in light of ESSA’s clear limits on the Secretary’s power—states like Delaware and Ohio can make a strong case that DeVos and her staff have no right to force them to significantly revise their long-term goals or college and career ready indicators.

There are folks hoping that the Department will walk this back—and Ohio should be rooting for that too. Media reports suggest that the Department may already be doing so. (These lines in a “Frequently Asked Questions” document released Friday are particularly important: “This initial feedback is not an approval or denial of a State plan; however, a State is still required to submit a plan that complies with all statutory requirements. Each State then has the opportunity to revise, further describe, add information and/or make changes and resubmit its plan; however, no State is required to do so.”)

But even without taking Mike’s arguments into account, Ohio should still resist making drastic changes to our ESSA plan. When state officials opted to delay our ESSA plan submission, it was to consider more stakeholder feedback in regards to state testing, teacher evaluations, and other issues. None of these issues were related to our long-term goals or the design of our Prepared for Success component. Why? Because both of those aspects of our plan are policies that have been years in the making. Ohio may have a history of sidestepping the consequences of accountability, but thus far we’ve done a pretty good job of setting rigorous goals and expectations. If our expectations aren’t rigorous enough, then we should by all means revise and rework our proposal. But the decision to revise should be left up to the teachers, parents, and policymakers who actually live and work in Ohio, those who will be most impacted by the plan—not the bureaucrats in Washington who only cast judgments from afar.   

Policy Priority:
Jessica Poiner - Fordham

Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

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