June 27, 2017

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Guest Blog: Our Independent Review of State ESSA Plans and What We Found

Today's guest blog comes from our friends at Collaborative for Student Success. This blog post in is coordination with the release of their broader review of ESSA plans. The Collaborative partnered with Bellwether Education to convene more than 30 bipartisan education policy experts to review state plans.

Several weeks ago, we told you about our independent peer review of state ESSA plans. Since the Every Student Succeeds Act passed with bipartisan congressional support and was signed by President Obama, there has been much debate about how states will – and should – use this opportunity to make bold decisions in designing their new accountability systems.

That’s why the Collaborative for Student Success  teamed up with Bellwether Education Partners to spearhead an independent peer review of these plans. Our effort looks beyond compliance, and focuses in on how states can improve their accountability systems. Our goal is to provide states, districts, parents, teachers and advocates with an additional level of feedback to help ensure that state systems are serving all students and providing a more equitable learning environment that fosters success. We assembled a list of phenomenal expert peer reviewers who boast diversity, partisan balance, and state and national expertise. 

Today, we will release the results of this peer review process.

Our findings already went to state departments of education and Governor’s offices. It is our goal to be as transparent as possible – this is not a “Gotcha” exercise, but it is an advocacy tool. We believe that by using our peer review process, the 17 states that have already submitted a plan can improve upon it, and that the 34 states that will submit a report in September can apply our recommendations. We sincerely hope that through implementation efforts at the state, district and school level, these ideas will help improve classroom results for students, parents, and teachers. 

Here are some high-level findings, beginning with some noteworthy strengths across the state plans


  • We saw much more robust measures of school quality (e.g. including science, art, physical education). Several states were looking to promote more holistic views of school quality;
  • At the high school level, states are pursuing a number of innovative college- and career-readiness indicators (AP, IB, SAT/ ACT, industry certifications, etc.) and refocusing efforts to ensure students are prepared for life after high school;
  • All 17 states included some measure of student growth; and 
  • Even though states could opt to include new, additional indicators of school quality, they are continuing to place strong weight on academics 


You will see that we have gone to great lengths to highlight the best practices we found in the 17 state plans so far, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t also push for plan improvements


  • Too many states had goals that were untethered to the state’s long-term visions or were ignored in the accountability system;
  • There is a troubling shift across states towards normative accountability systems, focused on how schools compare with one another, not an external standard; and  
  • Our peers believe that state plans can do more upfront to ensure student subgroups are not overlooked or overshadowed. Our peers had a strong equity lens and as a result, no state received the highest mark possible for having adequate checks in place to ensure all students and subgroups are tended too. 


Lastly, an important point to make which has direct impact on district leaders: these state plans had vague or underdeveloped school improvement plans, with only one state earning the highest mark possible for its proposals to actually turn around low-performing schools. This is a key area where states must do better, as the primary purpose of accountability systems is to drive school improvement.

How can you help? As part of our announcement today we are also launching a new website, CheckStatePlans.org. This interactive, user-friendly website will help parents and community members make sense of complicated state ESSA plans. We encourage you to share this information with colleagues and policymakers in your state. We hope you use it to help advocate for the changes that will strengthen your state plan and help ensure meaningful accountability. 


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