Does ESSA Follow Through on Its Claims for Equity?

While ESSA loosens the federal grip, the jury is still out as to whether the implementation of the law will be more equitable than NCLB (Wong, 2015). Like NCLB, ESSA still requires that students in grades 3 and 8 are tested, and then tested once again in high school (Egalite et al., 2017). ESSA also requires elementary and middle grades to be proficient on the state test, have English language proficiency, demonstrate student growth, and satisfy at least one of the school quality indicators (Egalite et al., 2017; Penuel et al., 2016). While including non-academic indicators for accountability measures is a step in the right direction, ESSA still requires state accountability systems to give more weight to academic indicators than non-academic indicators of school quality (Penuel et al., 2016).

With the initial rollout of ESSA, states were required to develop state plans for how they would execute the law, but early on most states’ plans were considered to be weak in terms of their outlook on equity. Some states proposed strategies in their plans that were no different than what they had previously promised in their application for an NCLB waiver (Forte, 2018). Under Secretary of Education Devos’s leadership, the U.S. Department of Education is approving states’ plans without holding them accountable for ESSA’s requirements that equity be the emphasis and mainstay of their plans. The dilemma is how to strike the balance between giving states and districts more flexibility, less federal oversight, and thus more freedom to emphasize equity while at the same time holding them accountable for centering equity. For example, even with power again entrusted to states and school districts, American Indian and Alaskan Native educational leaders have concerns that State Education Agencies (SEA) and Local Education Agencies (LEA) will not partner and contract with tribes if ESSA does not require them to do so (Mackey, 2017). So, unfortunately with ESSA, SEAs and LEAs have control over whether to partner with and the nature of their partnership with tribes (Mackey, 2017).

There are ongoing critiques of how states have used the flexibility of ESSA to instead renege on equity (Forte, 2018). Recently, the National Urban League (2019) rated the state ESSA plans for equity indicators and found that slightly over half (54%) of the 36 states and the District of Columbia evaluated were sufficient, whereas 9 were excellent and 8 were rated as poor. The National Urban League’s evaluation focused on 12 equity indicators, some of which included: goals and indicators, educator equity, stakeholder engagement, breaking the school-to-prison pipeline, equitable access to early childhood learning, equitable implementation of college and career standards, out-of-school time learning, equitable access to high quality curricula, and clear reporting and transparent data systems. While each state’s ranking was based on the weighted average performance for each of the indicators, the following three indicators were weighted more heavily as they were seen as especially critical to promoting and achieving equity: (1) subgroup performance, (2) supports and interventions for struggling schools, and (3) resource equity. What seemed to be the area most in need of improvement was that of providing supports and interventions for struggling schools; 14 states received a poor rating for this equity indicator (National Urban League, 2019; Schaffhauser, 2019). The report uncovered how some states in their ESSA plans were purposefully reducing the number of schools identified as needing improvement so then additional resources would not need to be directed to these schools. In addition, some placed less emphasis on critically examining subgroup performance, and others left it up to districts entirely to decide how to identify and respond to inequities. But if states water down the equity focus of their ESSA plans in these ways, then the result is that the only resources they provide to districts to redress inequities are monitoring and ensuring districts comply to the law (National Urban League, 2019; Schaffhauser, 2019). Consequently, it seems that most states’ commitment to equity under ESSA is still rather weak.

Recommendations: Anti-Racist Discussions about Assessments and Data

At this stage of implementation, ESSA does need to be formatively evaluated and then recalibrated to ensure that local policy actors are accountable for promoting equity under the spirit of the law. Still, it is a cause for optimism that states and school districts have the freedom to design assessments and use the data gleaned as a result to be more intentional in their approaches to redressing inequity. However, as was learned from NCLB, if educators’ racial biases go unchecked when discussing assessments, the decisions based on this data can do more harm to students from low-income families and students of color than good. For example, a study on teachers’ perceptions of student achievement data found that teachers attributed student performance to their instruction only 15% of the time, and were more likely to attribute performance to student characteristics like race, gender, or their socioeconomic status (Evans, Teasdale, Gannon-Slater, La Londe, Crenshaw, Greene, & Schwandt, 2019). More specifically, 32% of teachers’ explanations of student performance were based on behavioral characteristics of the student, such as student attitudes or lack of attention. Essentially, educators primarily positioned students as the cause of their own academic struggles and did not consider how the educational policies and structures may in fact be a disservice to students.

Hence, we recommend that district and school level leaders undertake ongoing professional development and coaching that encourages educators to critically unpack the racial biases they carry when engaging in discussions about student performance on any type of assessment. We as educators hold our students’ educational pathways and destinies in the palm of our hands when we use data from assessments to make decisions that drive the design of educational policies, structures, and practices. Yet, when educators use an anti-racist lens to drive discussions around data, data-driven decision-making (DDDM) can then be a starting point to uncovering systemic level inequities that were not always clearly visible (Myers & Finnigan, 2018). One framework we find particularly useful in encouraging educators to have difficult discussions about their racial biases when engaging in DDDM is Myers and Finnigan’s (2018) ERASE framework (an acronym) that includes the following five steps: (1) Examine and start to disaggregate various types of data; (2) Raise questions that help educators identify what differential outcomes they notice and how these outcomes are tied to racial biases and structural racism; (3) Ascertain root causes that explain the differential outcomes and brainstorm research-based solutions to address; (4) Select and prioritize short-term and long-term strategies and solutions; and (5) Evaluate progress by reexamining data sets and making any necessary adjustments to policies and practice in response.

Also, school leaders should question what types of data they are using to drive anti-racist changes in their school communities. There is an emerging body of research in educational leadership that considers students, parents, and community members from minoritized groups as equal partners in school leadership. We should also see these stakeholders as collaborators in developing assessments and bring them to the table when we are having discussions about data, as they have important cultural knowledge about the school community that would be integral to facilitating anti-racist change system-wide (Ishimaru, 2013; Rodela & Bertrand, 2018; Kennedy & Datnow, 2011). Therefore, we suggest that effective facilitators of anti-racist dialogue also need to be willing to steer the conversation away from blaming the students by asking practitioners tough questions about how they use data to assess student learning and achievement such as, “What ways are our practices failing such-and-such students?” and then begin to “unlearn to ask what is wrong with these students” (Bensimon, 2012, p. 34) in order to get to the root of the problem.

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