Outside group offers mixed reviews of Idaho’s ESSA plan

Idaho’s plan to comply with federal education law receives top marks for high standards and quality tests. But education experts singled it out for poor measures of academic progress and flawed plans for identifying low-performing schools.

That’s according to a new analysis of 34 state plans released jointly Tuesday by Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success.

“Idaho’s plan is built on high-quality standards and assessments and a straightforward set of indicators, and the plan intends to celebrate its highest-performing schools,” the joint analysis reads.

While the analysis leads with the good news, it goes downhill from there. Idaho received low marks for its education goals, academic progress, plans for identifying the lowest performing schools and more.

On several instances, the analysts criticize Idaho heavily for the way the state uses proficiency and growth for accountability.

“… The measure used for their accountability rating will be the higher of the two rankings. This is particularly problematic given the way Idaho has structured its growth measure, because a school could be given credit for making ‘growth’ even if no individual students were actually making annual progress,” the analysis states.

The analysis also faults Idaho for creating a “dashboard” based approach to accountability that presents multiple measures of student achievement data rather than a single, summative rating that ranks or compares all schools.

“Idaho has elected to use a dashboard rather than a summative rating, which will be difficult for parents to determine how a given school is performing, and how its performance compares with other schools’ performance,” the analysis states.

Lillian Lowery, a former superintendent of the Maryland State Department of Education, was one of 45 education experts who helped Bellwether and the Collaboration review the state plans for the new analysis.

She told reporters on a conference call Tuesday that parents, patrons and policy makers should pay particularly close attention to the state accountability systems.

“This system is an important tool for advancing equity,” Lowery said. “It does delineate for the public — writ large — what the state’s expectations are for all students.”

Jim Cowen, executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, said his organization’s goals for releasing the analysis were to provide accountability of the states while highlighting best practices and pointing out areas of weakness.

In a statement released Tuesday, State Department of Education spokeswoman Allison Westfall said the Bellwether analysis was helpful and instructive. But she stressed the most valuable feedback comes from Idaho’s educators, parents, students and advocates.

“Idaho is one of only five states that received the highest-possible rating (5) for their assessment systems, the backbone of an accountability framework,” Westfall said. “Bellwether’s positive assessment of that and other Idaho plan components is encouraging as we move forward, but we also are paying keen attention to components — such as incentives for academic progress and a framework for identifying additional targeted support — that drew lower ratings.”

The Bellwether/Collaborative analysts were not the only outside groups to criticize Idaho’s dashboard model. Last month, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a review of ESSA plans that criticized Idaho’s reliance on a data dashboard “with myriad data points and no bottom line for reporting school quality to parents, beyond identifying their very worst schools, as required by federal law.”

Idaho education leaders who developed the ESSA plan said they purposely chose a dashboard model because Idahoans who provided feedback into the plan were opposed to a summative rating reminiscent of the five-star rating system state leaders repealed in 2014.

In recent weeks, several outside consultants and education groups have weighed in on Idaho’s ESSA plan. But Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education have the ultimate say in whether the plan is approved or sent back for potential changes.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the SDE had yet to hear a response from DeVos or the feds, Westfall said. State leaders submitted the plan to the feds on Sept. 13. DeVos has 120 days, or about four months from when it was submitted, to respond.

Passed in December 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act is a federal education law that replaced No Child Left Behind and shifts authority over education policy away from the federal government and toward the states and local school districts.

Idaho’s ESSA compliance plan is important because it outlines the state’s goals for education, creates an accountability system, describes how local education leaders will implement nine federal programs and represents Idaho’s application for about $83 million in annual federal funding.

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