Posted on January 25th, 2017

By Julie Marsh, Susan Bush-Mecenas, and Heather Hough

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) represents a notable shift in K-12 accountability. Unlike the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, ESSA requires a more comprehensive approach to assessing school performance that includes both academic and nonacademic measures and a less prescriptive approach to intervening in low-performing schools. While much is known about the implementation and effects of NCLB (e.g., Dee & Jacob, 2011; Neal & Schanzenbach, 2010; Stecher et al., 2008), little is known about the new accountability systems likely to emerge under ESSA (2015). While some states innovated slightly under the NCLB waiver policy, few made dramatic changes akin to those called for under ESSA. For example, the accountability systems in waiver states relied on state-driven interventions for struggling schools and few incorporated expansive measurement systems (e.g., most relied on test results in math and English language arts and few used non-state measures other than graduation rates; McNeil, 2014; Polikoff, McEachin, Wrabel, & Duque, 2014).

However, one state-like consortium of districts, the California Office to Reform Education (CORE), has designed and implemented a new accountability system well-aligned to ESSA’s state requirements for holistic measurement systems, customized local support for school improvement, and public engagement with data (U.S. Department of Education [US DOE], 2016). The six CORE waiver districts—Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Santa Ana, and San Francisco—provide a unique opportunity to understand and learn from the enactment of an ESSA-like accountability system. Freed by the U.S. Department of Education from some of their obligations under NCLB in 2013, these six districts developed and are implementing CORE’s accountability system (the School Quality Improvement System) that provides comprehensive data on performance and emphasizes the importance of Fullan and Quinn’s (2015) “right drivers” for school improvement. Key features of this system are (a) a measurement system (hereafter MS), formally referred to as the School Quality Improvement Index, that focuses on academic outcomes alongside nonacademic measures of student success, (b) peer-to-peer school improvement interventions, and (c) district-level capacity building.

In total, the CORE Districts represent more than one million students (20% of California students), including large percentages of students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and English learners. Collectively, these enrollment figures exceed the total student population in more than two-thirds of states and reflect the diversity of students served nationally. As such, the implementation of the CORE accountability system across a diverse and geographically dispersed set of districts faces a set of potential challenges one might observe in states generally. In this article, we seek to leverage the experiences of the CORE Districts to promote a better understanding of what it means to implement a multiple-measure accountability system and locally determined, collaborative improvement efforts.

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