ESSA Accountability: Don’t Forget the High Achievers

fordham instituteIn the early days of the accountability movement, Jeb Bush’s Florida developed an innovative approach to evaluating school quality. First, the state looked at individual student progress over time—making it one of the first to do so. Then it put special emphasis on the gains (or lack thereof) of the lowest-performing kids in the state.

Many were fans of this approach which focused on low-achievers. It was an elegant way to highlight the performance of the children who were most at risk of being “left behind,” without resorting to an explicitly race-based approach like No Child Left Behind’s.

Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners recently interviewed one of the designers of the Florida system, Christy Hovanetz, who elaborates:

By focusing on the lowest-performing students, we want to create a system that truly focuses on students who need the most help and is equitable across all schools. We strongly support the focus on the lowest-performing students, no matter what group they come from.

That does a number of things. It reduces the number of components…within the accountability system and places the focus on students who truly need the most help….It also reduces the need for small n-sizes. If you’re looking at the lowest-performing students in any given school, it’s a larger n-size than a lot of the race or curricular subgroups.

Michael Petrilli, writing for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, says, “I still understand the impulse, but I’ve come to see this approach as a big mistake. That’s because it signals to schools that their low-achievers should be a higher priority than their high-achievers. And in a high-poverty school especially—where everybody is poor—that has the unintended consequence of hurting high-achieving, low-income students.”

Thankfully, under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states now have the opportunity—and face the challenge—of designing school rating systems that can vastly improve upon the model required by NCLB. And one of the most important improvements they can make is to ensure that their accountability systems encourage schools to pay attention to all students, including their strivers.

State rating systems need to contain four crucial elements—all allowable under ESSA—if their high-achievers are again to matter to their schools:

  1. For the first academic indicator required by ESSA (“academic achievement”), give schools extra credit for achievement at the “advanced” level.
  1. For the second academic indicator expected by ESSA (student growth), grade schools using a true growth model that looks at the progress of students at all achievement levels, not just those who are low-performing or below the “proficient” line.
  1. When determining summative school grades, or ratings, make growth—across the achievement spectrum—count the most.
  1. Include “gifted students” (or “high achieving students”) as a subgroup in the state’s accountability system, and report results for them separately.


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