What the new federal education law means for Oklahoma (part 2)

Children With BooksKylie Thomas is an OK Policy intern and a Master’s student in economics at American University. She previously earned her Bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Tulsa.

This post is part two of a two-part series which explains the new federal education law that replaces the No Child Left Behind Act with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Part one looked at ESSA’s effects on accountability and standards. This part examines ESSA’s effects on testing and teachers.

How the Every Students Succeeds Act affects school testing in Oklahoma

Maintains statewide annual testing – ESSA maintains statewide annual testing in math and reading for grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. ESSA also requires that every state test students in science at least once in grades 3 through 5, 6 through 8, and 9 through 12. With state approval, high schools may use nationally-recognized tests like the SAT or ACT rather than state exams. Additionally, states will be able to create their own testing opt-out policies and can decide the consequences schools face if they fail to comply with testing mandates.

Oklahoma has already begun making changes to statewide annual testing. HB 3218, which was passed in the 2016 legislative session, is aligned to the annual state testing requirements of ESSA, with the addition of a U.S. history exam once in high school. These changes in testing will begin in 2016-17 school year. Starting in the 2017-18 school year, HB 3218 allows high schools to use nationally-recognized tests as an alternative to end-of-instruction exams with state approval.

These testing changes will lead to further changes in Oklahoma’s A-F grading system for school accountability. Under the current A-F grading system, student performance, an indicator which makes up half of a school’s overall grade, is based on end-of-instructions tests; however, these exams were eliminated by HB 3218. The A-F grading system, which has already been criticized for distorting our understanding of school performance and discriminating against high-poverty schools, will have to be revised to account for the new testing plan.

How the Every Student Succeeds Act affects Oklahoma teachers

Reforms teacher evaluations – ESSA prohibits the federal government from mandating an evaluation system for teachers, principals, or other school leaders. Oklahoma had previously received a No Child Left Behind waiver that gave the state more flexibility in developing its own evaluation system. Under ESSA, Oklahoma could eliminate teacher evaluations, but comments from state education officials imply this is unlikely. Still, Oklahoma has already made changes to its teacher evaluation system. During the 2016 legislative session, HB 2957 gave schools more flexibility on how they evaluate teachers. Starting in 2017-18, teachers will still be evaluated on qualitative measures; however, school districts have the power to decide whether or not to evaluate teachers on quantitative measures like student test scores.

Changes teacher qualification requirements – ESSA abandons the “highly qualified teacher” No Child Left Behind provision which required teachers who taught core academic subjects to hold a bachelor’s degree, have state certification, and demonstrate competency in the core academic subject area(s) they taught. Now, teachers in schools receiving Title I funding  will only be required to meet state certification and licensure requirements.

Oklahoma was already struggling to staff schools with “highly qualified teachers”, and the state Department of Education resorted to issuing hundreds of emergency certifications, which allow individuals with a bachelor’s degree to be employed as teachers before securing regular or alternative certification. Loosening teacher qualifications may make it easier to fill vacancies by providing the state flexibility to decide what it takes to be an effective teacher.

Giving schools power to eliminate teacher evaluations based on test scores may also help reduce teacher attrition by improving teachers’ morale and working conditions. However, loosening qualifications and evaluations is only a Band-Aid solution. In the long run, Oklahoma will likely continue to hemorrhage teachers to other states or careers until pay and working conditions become more attractive and competitive.

The Bottom Line

Oklahoma has already made changes to testing that align with ESSA, and districts are allowed to make further changes when ESSA goes into full effect in 2017-18 by allowing high schools to substitute state exams for nationally-recognized tests. ESSA also has the potential to help states fill teacher vacancies by loosening qualification requirements and lifting evaluation mandates that threatened teacher morale. Overall, education policy decisions made by the state and individual districts will determine the success of Oklahoma public schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

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