I was as surprised and fascinated as everyone else as the bipartisan viability of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) became increasingly likely, and ultimately passed, this fall. Early in the process, I was somewhat ambivalent to the actual outcome because out-of-school and off-track youth do not get the attention or investment that I feel is needed through ESSA. The fact that the High School Graduation Initiative (HSGI), or any specific reengagement initiative for that matter, was not in the bill was a big disappointment. It was no surprise that the bill found its bipartisan support by swinging the pendulum away from the one-size-fits-all approach of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And, with that pendulum swing, the prospects for prescriptive federal initiatives were greatly diminished.
However, as the bill progressed, a colleague pointed out a key benefit in ESSA that may prove to be, in the big picture, even more impactful than HSGI for out-of-school youth. Under NCLB, one of the biggest hurdles for out-of-school youth was in the disincentives that districts had in serving them. An accountability system that focuses on test scores and four-year graduation rates does not prompt superintendents to re-enroll 19 year olds who had dropped out of school. So, even where we are seeing some early progress among states going out of their way to re-engage out-of-school youth, those same trailblazers were getting ready to have their hands slapped by ED for the performance of their hardest-to-serve students.
Under ESSA, states must still conduct standardized testing in English and Math, and continue to measure four-year graduation rates. However, with the new law, states and local districts have more autonomy to develop local accountability systems that are customized to the needs of specific populations. This autonomy may provide a beneficial context for states to experiment with accountability systems that allow districts to provide the necessary second chances for students who have previously struggled. In Washington state, a system has been set up to allow districts to measure a wide range of academic indicators such as industry-recognized credentials and college credits for re-engaged students who are older and already beyond their four-year graduation window. Accountability systems like this are critical to incentivize districts to serve all students, and I believe that ESSA will encourage more states to be creative in the systems they develop.
It is not yet clear how states will activate the new accountability that comes with ESSA. However, what is clear is that this is an opportunity for advocates for out-of-school youth and alternative accountability to collaborate with state agencies and legislatures for the creation of systems that measure the progress of students who were inadvertently neglected by NCLB. Despite the absence of explicit language in the new law calling on districts to re-enroll out-of-school youth, ESSA opens the door for states and districts to step forward with innovative approaches to accountability that measure outcomes that are relevant for previously dropped-out students and the educators who serve them.
Nick Mathern is Associate Vice President of Policy & Partnership Development. Since 2005, he has brokered agreements between colleges, school districts, and state education agencies in order to connect communities with training, professional development, and evaluation services, as well as replication and implementation of the Gateway to College program model. Read more.