The Most Important Takeaway from State ESSA Plans

Across the country, states are working on their plans for how they’re going to improve education and set up accountability systems before they submit the plans in September. Earlier this year, 17 states submitted their plans to the U.S. Dept of Education, while the remaining 34 will submit plans in September.

So what makes for a strong accountability plan in education? We, along with Bellwether Education Partners, gathered 30 experts with varying experience, expertise, and political leanings to take a look at those first 17 state plans and provide feedback, and three weeks ago we released Check State Plans to share the results.

Every state has something to learn from these reviews.

If your state already submitted a plan in April – you can look at what experts are saying is missing from your plan and help push your state to consider improvements. If your state is working on a plan now and hasn’t submitted you can still look to examples across the nine categories we looked at and see best practice ideas from the states plans we reviewed!

Here’s a breakdown of nine categories that help build strong accountability systems, nine state examples to look to, and nine reasons why all of this matters!


1. Goals

If states want an educated population, goals matter and they matter in a big way. Kids need to be prepared to leave high school and find success – in college, the workforce, or the military. Attainable  and aligned goals are the key to success.

Louisiana’s goals are a great example to look to. They’re ambitious, attainable and backed by clear data. The state is proposing to sustain its recent gains and annually increase its proficiency rates. Louisiana has set the same final target for all groups of students but it expects faster progress for groups that are starting further behind. Click here to learn more.


2. Standards and Assessments

Students need to be challenged with rigorous academic standards throughout their k-12 careers to ensure they are prepared to achieve postsecondary success. And high-quality assessments aligned to high standards give students, parents, and educators about how students are achieving academically.

New Jersey received top marks for strong commitments to college- and career-ready standards and high-quality, aligned assessments in math and English Language Arts, as well as assessments in science, social studies, and early grades (K-2) that will help address concerns about curriculum narrowing.  Click here to learn more about why their plan received a 5 out of 5.


3. Indicators

Indicators give states a more complete picture of students’ progress – beyond measures of student proficiency or student growth.

New Mexico’s plan proposed a high-quality list of meaningful indicators, including the growth of the lowest-performing students, extended-year graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, and a new college-readiness indicator. Click here to learn more.


4. Academic Progress

“Change is inevitable, but progress is optional.”

With the consistently changing demographics of schools in the country, it’s important to have meaningful ways of capturing and reporting students’ status, as well as their progress in terms of reaching and achieving high goals.

A state to look to: Arizona. AZ’s plan places a strong weight on student achievement and growth by combining a clear measure of student achievement with two different measures of student growth; one that compares students to each other and one that compares them to a common benchmark. Click here to learn more.


5. All Students

States must acknowledge and serve the needs of all students in the country – with an emphasis on traditionally underserved groups of students that often don’t receive the additional support needed for postsecondary success.

Sadly no states received high marks in this category. See Erika McConduit, President and CEO of the Urban League’s explanation of why this category is so important and what she and her peer reviewers were looking for in state’s plans.


6. Identifying schools

Accurately identifying low-performing schools sheds light on where schools and districts can provide greater support to certain student groups and allows them to develop opportunities for intervention.

Louisiana’s school rating system is a great example of how to identify low-performing schools. Their A-F school rating system provides stakeholders with a single, clear, summative rating to understand school performance and demonstrates how it will identify close to 17 percent of its schools for comprehensive support and improvement, well above the 5 percent required under federal law. Click here to learn more.


7. Supporting Schools

Schools are the unit of change in this country. By supporting low-performing schools and helping them improve, states can ensure that their students are receiving a high-quality education.

When it comes to Supporting schools, New Mexico’s plan is where it’s at. It clearly states what action must be taken in schools that fail to improve three years after being initially identified for comprehensive support and improvement. Schools must choose between a concrete list of intervention options or the state department will choose one for it. New Mexico is committed to providing additional funding to plans that use the strongest base of evidence and to providing “Direct Student Services” to support expanded learning time, AP course access, K-3 literacy and mathematics, pre-k services, personalized learning, and student transportation. Click to learn more.


8. Exiting Improvement Status

Comprehensive and clear criteria for exiting improvement status gives schools and districts a clear understanding of how they can improve. Rigorous criteria also provide parents and students with the knowledge that once schools exit improvement status, they have made real, sustainable improvements.

In their plan, Nevada lays out rigorous exit criteria that make it difficult for a school to exit comprehensive or targeted improvement status without demonstrating significant improvement over time. Click here to learn more.


9. Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement is the bedrock of what many teachers expect of themselves, students, and state. But writing a plan isn’t enough. States must work to implement their plans with fidelity and continuously reassess what is working and what isn’t – with a focus on stakeholder feedback to make sure that they are serving in the best interest of all kids.

In their plan, New Mexico outlines a number of ways it has and will continue to engage stakeholders on key aspects of its implementation efforts, that other states might want to replicate. For example, it will be adding science as an indicator in its accountability system in response to stakeholder feedback, and it will continue to gather input as it considers revising their “Opportunity-to-Learn” survey, both of which will go into effect in the 2018-19 school year.” New Mexico’s “Return Tour” across the state will present an overview of the submitted plan, how it changed in response to initial stakeholder feedback, and how the state will implement the plan going forward. Click here to learn more.


Visit for more explainers, videos, and the full report from Bellwether

Blair Mann is the Director of Media Relations at the Collaborative for Student Success