North Dakota Department of Public Instruction’s Vision for Education with New Opportunities Provided to Us through the Every Student Succeeds Act State Accountability Plan
Over the past 60 years, we have sought to improve our education system and focus on equity, excellence, standards and accountability.
In December 2015 a new era dawned with the elimination of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the changes brought forth by the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Today North Dakota has the opportunity once again to build a system of continuous improvement that lifts every learner, teacher, leader, and community. Today our state is at a crucial crossroads, to assertively move toward a future that embraces real and sustainable improvement that can transform the lives of thousands of learners and our school communities.
Under NCLB-era accountability, too much focus was placed on a single measure (student assessment), focusing on too narrow a band of students (low-performing students near proficiency) rather than sparking higher performance by all students. Federally mandated sanctions were overly prescriptive, and the use of test scores to measure school quality had a negative effect on educators’ morale.
In the words of Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy:
The test-based accountability system now universally mandated in the United States…has had 10 years to prove itself. The result is very low teacher morale, plummeting applications to schools of education, the need to recruit too many of our teachers from the lowest levels of high school graduates, a testing regime that has narrowed the curriculum for millions of students to a handful of subjects and a very low level of aspiration. There is no evidence that it is contributing anything to improved student performance, much less the improved performance of the very low-income and minority students for which it was in the first instance created.
The Every Student Succeeds Act grants much greater authority to the states to shape their school accountability system, especially in contrast to the many rules of No Child Left Behind. North Dakota now enjoys the opportunity—and faces the challenge—of designing an accountability system that can improve our schools. One of the most important improvements we can make is to ensure that our accountability system encourages schools to pay attention to all students.
No Child Left Behind meant well, but it had serious flaws. One flaw created strong incentives for schools to focus all of their energy on helping low-performing students get over a “proficiency” bar, while ignoring the educational needs of our high-achievers, who were likely to pass state reading and math tests regardless of what happened in the classroom.
One of the most unfortunate things about the current accountability system is that it is separate from local factors and culture. NCLB did not measure or recognize rapid progress in low-performing schools, lack of progress in high-performing schools or the effects of punitive sanctions on local schools. Nor did it give credit for the kinds of things our schools were investing in every day in individual school buildings across our state that should be leveraged to maximize performance. Meanwhile, the hyperfocus on standards and testing has too often impeded the development of talent and creativity, entrepreneurship, and the ability to prepare all students for global citizenship.
Standards and assessments have their place in identifying what students know, but they should serve as tools for improvement, not as the overarching indicators of success for students or schools.
By limiting the federal role in defining accountability systems, ESSA opens the door for North Dakota to develop an accountability plan with continuous improvement at its core and the local context as its foundation. We have an unprecedented opportunity to move beyond the NCLB-era approach to accountability that created a culture of compliance, blame and a punitive system of winners and losers.
North Dakota should strive to write an accountability system that sparks student and school improvement. To do so North Dakota needs to move beyond limited and arbitrary measures of student learning to rate schools. We now have the golden opportunity to find the right mix of measures that come together to create a balanced and holistic measure of the quality of our schools. This will provide meaningful information to help North Dakota leaders plan and implement appropriate and targeted supports.
ESSA maintains NCLB’s requirement that states assess students annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school, yet we are now allowed to incorporate the use of real student growth measures. This is a fairer way of evaluating schools’ impact on student achievement than looking only at proficiency rates. Well-designed growth measures can help us prevent schools from ignoring their highest and lowest achievers. Growth measures level the playing field.
Under ESSA, states will continue to measure the percentage of students who attain proficiency on state tests, but we should also give schools incentives for getting students to an advanced level.
North Dakota should consider growth-true growth – not just growth to proficiency.
North Dakota might consider clearly stating that high achievers matter by making them a “subgroup.” Reporting whether they are making strong growth is relevant.
As we move forward as a state writing our ESSA plan, we must remember that an accountability system must be more than setting expectations. It must establish the processes and conditions to reach those expectations. Put another way, if North Dakota is serious about achieving success for every learner, we must create a system that is responsive to and recognizes and rewards schools that value the personal journey every learner experiences. We need an accountability system that does not stall improvements in school quality, teacher effectiveness, and student learning but rather guides, supports, and ensures continuous improvement.
Now is the time North Dakota needs to rethink the end purpose of accountability plans that were devised nearly two decades ago. If we are truly going to adequately prepare our young people for their future we must design a continuously improving system that allows the ability of leaders and educators in all schools to make regular changes in how they work based on constant feedback.
Now is the time for North Dakota to embrace an accountability system based on continuous improvement that changes reporting of data from a compliance activity to a valuable process that is helpful to local leaders and that enables positive change at a local level.
Schools, like students, must be given room to make their own journey to mastery and success. Doing so requires them to develop their talent, culture, skills, and use of knowledge to make decisions that will improve the performance of the school and its students.
An accountability plan built upon a continuous improvement process not only shows educators where their schools stand, but also empowers them to move forward. It encourages all schools to improve.
The new federal law gives North Dakota increased flexibility, greater local control, and the ability to innovate and design local policies and systems that ensure the success of all students. This flexibility gives North Dakota room to set our own goals and continuous improvement accountability.
However North Dakota will need to be decisive about doing so, because the law provides only the most basic framework for what states need to do.
Instead of simply modifying or tweaking our existing system. The North Dakota ESSA team should take this opportunity to acknowledge lessons learned, wipe the slate clean and envision a forward-thinking education system.
While education systems can serve multiple purposes, the most critical is to continuously drive and create improvement so that every learner succeeds. The primary purpose of education should not be to simply improve student test scores, for that is merely one of many outcomes that should be monitored.
Effectively measuring, monitoring, and improving the complex conditions of education requires information about a multitude of factors and how they have changed over time.
North Dakota can ensure that school quality is based on a rich array of measurements—including the kind that do not show up on test scores.
North Dakota can provide a plan that provides a carrot for better decision-making and removes the stick of school ratings based only on a single factor.
North Dakota must be courageous and create a system of accountability that is not punitive but is instead learner centric and focused on continuous improvement. Local improvement measures will determine what needs to be done. Implementation of improvements leads to further knowledge, increases capacity, and improves the capability of the school.
Encouraging and supporting districts and schools to own the evidence for their success creates an opportunity for North Dakota to create a self-innovating system that helps schools become what we want them to be—dynamic learning centers that help all talent rise regardless of where learners start.
For North Dakota schools to flourish, NDDPI’s role must be to support a feedback system that helps educators and local leaders act on what they learn to improve their schools. NDDPI’s role should no longer be to serve as good cop, bad cop. NDDPI will be a partner in improvement, providing needed technical assistance, support, and monitoring.
Just as young people receive more independence as they grow, NDDPI can loosen the reins on schools to empower local leaders to make improvements. Thus, the accountability framework must be shaped in partnership with local educators and communities who are empowered to address their unique challenges.
While ESSA now gives greater authority to North Dakota, it can only lead to improvement if the state shares responsibilities with districts and schools to make needed changes in their buildings. The change begins with loosening the grip that single measures have on our schools. Just as we encourage students to provide multiple points of evidence to back up their conclusions, we need to ensure schools have access to multiple sources of relevant information needed to make and sustain progress.
For more than 15 years, America has tried rigid systems of high-stakes testing to encourage and demand improvements in school quality, teacher effectiveness and student learning. Such systems have fallen short of achieving desired improvements. If we are committed to every child’s success, we must create an accountability system to guide, support and ensure continuous improvement. The North Dakota ESSA committee can help by providing a consistent way of measuring success that provides the ability for every school, like every child, a personalized journey of continuous improvement.
North Dakota can use the ESSA as a framework to inject new ideas, encourage collaboration, and jointly develop new measures and indicators with the input from key stakeholders throughout the state. Our students will benefit from a system like this, and they deserve nothing less.