Achieving ESSA Goals Requires Investment in the Early Years

Your state has goals for performance in English Language Arts (ELA) and Math. Do you know what they are?  As an early childhood advocate you may well not, as all of the goals are based on standardized assessments given to children in third grade and up. But you should, because chances are those state goals are out of reach for your state unless it puts more focus on early learning.

Under federal law all states are required to have goals for performance in ELA and math. States have taken widely varying approaches to setting those goals, as documented by Achieve, Inc. in a February 2018 report. To some degree that makes sense, given that states use different tests and start from different baselines. But each state also has to base its goals on an improvement trajectory, and that’s where some states are not grounding their work in reality.

Data published by Stanford’s Sean Reardon has identified the upper limits of growth in assessment scores produced by the nation’s highest-growth districts. A school district that produces 1.1 years worth of growth in a single year would be among the top 20 percent of districts in the nation on this metric – meaning that it’s not realistic to expect large numbers of districts to do better than that. But too many states are setting goals based on assumptions of growth that simply have no basis in reality.

Advance Illinois recently published a report, Establishing Achievable Goals, that explains the dangers of that approach. In Illinois, achieving the current goals would require school districts producing gains at rates three to five times higher than those currently produced by the very best districts in the country. That will create unfair pressure on schools, and lead people to treat the goals as meaningless. I co-authored that report with Ben Boer and Paul Zavitkovsky, and while we don’t analyze other states in detail it’s clear that other states have fallen into the same trap.

For early learning purposes a key takeaway is that whatever a state’s goals are, early learning is an essential part of the strategy for meeting it. The Reardon analysis tells us that if a cohort of children is a year behind at the end of second grade, only one in five school districts can get that cohort caught up by the end of high school. And as we all know, there are a lot of districts where children at the end of second grade are even more than a year behind. The Reardon data drive home the notion that improvement in the years before third grade – including birth-to-five early learning and the early elementary years -- offers the best opportunity for a state to improve its overall performance.

A state’s ESSA goals are meant to inform its accountability system and drive its school improvement planning. Establishing Achievable Goals will definitely be informing work in Illinois to advocate for amended goals, and hopefully can be a useful resource for other states addressing the same issue. For too long states have ignored the importance of early learning in their K-12 planning processes. If states are being unrealistic about the growth schools can produce between third grade and high school graduation they should amend their goals to be more realistic. And whatever a state’s goals are, state leaders in both the executive and legislative branch should recognize that achieving them will require deeper investment in the years before third grade – particularly before kindergarten entry.

Elliot Regenstein, Foresight Policy + Law

(January 17, 2019)