Strong school accountability systems can send a clear message that the achievement of all groups of students matters and that to be considered good, a school must serve all groups of students well. But in recent years, many states put in place accountability systems that did just the opposite. These systems masked disparities in opportunity and achievement rather than highlight them, often giving A’s to schools that, year after year, underserve some groups of students.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offers state leaders the opportunity to change these policies and to refocus their education systems on improving opportunity and outcomes for all young people, but particularly for students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and English learners.

At The Education Trust we’ve been closely following the decisions states are making in their new accountability systems. Our analysis of state ESSA plans focused tightly on three questions we believe are especially important in determining whether a plan is likely to promote opportunity and improve outcomes for all groups of students:

  1. Are states keeping student learning front and center?
  2. Do school ratings reflect how schools are doing for all groups of students?
  3. Is the state being honest about which schools need to take steps to improve for one or more student groups?

What we found is not encouraging. For all the lip-service given to the importance of equity in ESSA, too many state leaders have taken a pass on clearly naming and acting on schools’ underperformance for traditionally underserved students. Many state leaders have:

  • Chosen to base ratings mostly on overall averages, largely ignoring results of individual student groups; and
  • When it comes to identifying schools that need to improve for a group of students – such as students from low-income families or Black or Latino students – most state leaders are setting the bar far too low, further overlooking underperformance.

In this brief we discuss each of these trends in more detail and, wherever possible, highlight examples of states that are bucking these trends.

We also urge state-based advocates to work together to keep the pressure on state leaders through constant vigilance, to draw inspiration from leading states and districts, and to push their state leaders to become the equity champions that many claim to be.

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