Vermont school improvement plan gets federal approval

Rebecca Holcombe
Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

After some back and forth with the Agency of Education, the U.S. Department of Education approved Vermont’s plan to comply with the federal law that gives states financial support for low-income schools.

The state had been in a long-standing feud with the federal government over punishments tied to the same funds under the earlier No Child Left Behind law, but now state officials are pleased their proposal, which they say adheres to Vermont values, was given the green light.

“I don’t think we had to make any compromises with anything we put forward. (Department of Education officials) were very good partners throughout,” said Amy Fowler, deputy secretary at the Agency of Education. “We felt pretty much we were writing the plan Vermont would want, federal law or not,” she added.

This is the first year the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act is supposed to be fully implemented. Each state has to submit a plan for implementing the law explaining how they will spend federal funds, measure student achievement and support students who need help.

The Every Student Succeeds Act and its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, are new names and new takes on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 — a civil rights law that gives states money for low-income students to ensure they have equal access to learning opportunities. The 2015 law provides an additional $1.2 billion for the nation’s schools.

NCLB shifted the focus to highlight schools that were not living up to the original law’s intent by requiring states to test students and hold schools responsible for their performance.

ESSA is much less strict, but it does still require states to test students and use their scores to identify the bottom 5 percent of schools that are eligible for federal funding.

In April, Vermont submitted an accountability plan to the Education Department. On Aug. 9 the feds sent questions back to the Vermont agency and gave it 15 days to answer.

The biggest concerns were around whether the state planned to hold schools responsible for every one of the student groups listed in the law or just some. Federal officials wanted to ensure the state would report the percent of students proficient on statewide tests, and they said the state had to use a science test as part of its overall accountability score beginning immediately. The state had hoped to try out the initiative for a year first, according to Fowler.

“It is not a very big change. We were going to give it next year anyway. Now we will have to use it as part of the accountability system,” Fowler said.

Vermont education officials are particularly happy the federal government said they can use scale scores for accountability determinations.

Vermont was among 15 states that asked to be able to use scale scores, according to Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe. She said scale scores are more stable and accurate and provide a more nuanced understanding of performance.

Educators prefer using scale scores — such as 2800 — because it provides more information than say, 55 percent of students are proficient in reading. Fowler put it this way: A student could score a B-plus on a report card or get an 89. The number is a more accurate representation of the student’s performance.

“At the end of the day, folks want to know is this school good or bad. That is like saying if you are on a diet and you lost 2 pounds this week are you doing good or bad. You moved in the right direction,” Fowler said, adding the state will focus on helping schools’ ongoing pursuit to get better.

State officials were also pleased they will be able to use education quality reviews that hold school systems accountable for student mastery of new academic standards approved in 2013 as part of their plan. The reviews consider test scores, but there are 18 other measurements too.

The Agency of Education proposes using a part of the state’s Education Quality Standards and Review system for federal accountability requirements in an effort to preserve state and local education values while making the best use of federal dollars.

“Vermont’s state plan reflects the goals of Vermont’s education quality standards by including measures to assess students’ readiness for postsecondary outcomes and their success in achieving those outcomes,” said Holcombe.

NCLB demanded states tag schools as good or bad, but under ESSA and this approved plan, Vermont will be able to work on improving every school, according to Fowler.

“I’m thrilled,” she said. “We sometimes forget in Vermont that we perform in the top 10 states on all national assessments. We have amazing schools, amazing staff, and at the same time we can all get better. We will work every day to better serve students.”

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