State News
December 29, 2015

Vermont educators take wait-and-see approach to new federal Every Student Success Act

By Tiffany Danitz Pache, VTDigger.org

While Vermont’s congressional delegation has lauded the passage of new federal education legislation, leaders of the state’s schools are more cautious. After 14 years of federal mandates meant to help improve learning that often bucked up against Vermont’s more progressive policies, the Agency of Education and State Board of Education are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“First, we have to let it unfold. It’s a 1,000-page law with many facets. It will certainly change the federal role,” said William Mathis, a member of the State Board of Education. “It still remains a top-down, basically punitive accountability system.”

Rebecca Holcombe, the secretary of the Agency of Education, said some aspects of the new law could be exciting, but “the fine details are in the specifics of the language.”

“Until you can look at what it says and then look at how the federal government will define it in regulatory language and guidance – it will take a while to sort out,” Holcombe said.

The new law, which President Barack Obama signed into law on Thursday, Dec. 10, is called the Every Student Succeeds Act. It replaces the controversial No Child Left Behind legislation. The president called the new legislation “an early Christmas present” and supporters say it could help Vermont in several ways.

the dismantling of the accountability standards known as Adequate Yearly Progress (although, Holcombe says it still exists in theory);

an end to mandatory test-based teacher evaluation (Vermont withdrew from the federal waiver process under No Child Left Behind, the previous federal education law.)

an end to waivers;

an emphasis on pre-K education;

an authorization for more federal funds for the neediest schools.

There are also pilot programs in Every Student Succeeds Act that encourage states to adopt new policies that Vermont has already put in place, such as personal learning plans for all students as well as performance-based assessments. In the past, Vermont’s pursuit of these initiatives was at odds with Washington.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a member of the Senate Education Committee, said he worked to reform “the one-sizes-fits-all approach of the No Child Left Behind Act that incorrectly classified most Vermont schools as failing, when in fact we have one of the nation’s best school systems.”

“The new legislation rightly recognizes that our children are more than a test score,” Sanders said.

Vermont students outpace their peers in most other states on national tests, can hold their own on international assessments, and have one of the highest graduation rates in the nation — 92 percent in 2014.

The Every Student Succeeds Act will continue to require Vermont to test students every year in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. It also adds two extra science tests to be taken during those same years.

“The federally mandated assessments are unchanged,” Holcombe said. “The state is still required to have an accountability system that identifies low performing schools which includes the use of high stakes assessment scores.”

In the new law, states are required to step in and help schools that have test scores in the lowest 5 percent, where achievement gaps are growing and in high schools that graduate fewer than 67 percent of students on time.

Both Sanders and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., say that the new federal law brings more flexibility to Vermont and the rest of the states, largely because of the removal of the Adequate Yearly Progress requirement that forced states to set targets for all students to be proficient by 2014.

Many educators say that goal was unrealistic. States are now responsible for setting up their own accountability systems.

“You have a little more flexibility about what you do when you see a system is struggling,” Holcombe said. She fears Vermont will face the same conundrum as it has in the past.

“Vermont has set hard targets and we were pushed into a corner by the labeling in NCLB,” Holcombe said. The state could have written easy standards – or expectations for what students should know and be able to do each year – as some states did. Vermont also could have set the bar for passing the statewide test with proficiency low – as some states did.

“We didn’t,” Holcombe said.

Holcombe hopes the law will allow the state to move away from punishing schools and instead marshal support to help schools and improve learning.

State accountability plans must be approved by the U.S. Department of Education. Holcombe and the state board say the plan is similar to Adequate Yearly Progress and the “high stakes” environment has remained the same.

This past year, Vermont has been piloting education quality reviews, which will hold school systems accountable for student mastery of new academic standards approved in 2013. The reviews consider five indicators: academic achievement, personalized learning, safety and school climate, high quality staffing and cost effectiveness.

While English and math tests scores will be part of the academic achievement portion, there are 18 other measurements that fall into that bucket. A total of nearly 120 indicators will be considered. This broader and deeper look at school quality contrasts with NCLB’s “dipstick” that measured an entire school’s performance with a test given one day during the school year.

“I am especially pleased with the bill’s innovative assessment and accountability demonstration authority provision, which will allow Vermont to adopt competency and performance based assessments that prove far more than how well a student can perform on a test on one given day,” Leahy said.

Sanders said this reflects Vermont’s desire to emphasize growth in year-to-year learning.

These new testing options coordinate well with Vermont’s efforts to develop personalized learning plans for every student in grades 7-12.

The Every Student Succeeds Act also increases federal funding for the Title I program that supports low-income students and schools. Since the original act was adopted in 1965 the goal has been to give students an academic path out of poverty.

ESSA has created a new formula for rural schools that could steer an extra $1.3 million a year to Vermont some of it specifically for afterschool programing, according to Sanders.

“The most important thing not to lose track of is the purpose of this bill historically has been to promote equity. That is something we have to continue to work on in the state of Vermont,” said Holcombe.

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