ESSA and the Bottom 5% of Schools

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Diane and Lamar Part Three


This is Part Three in a nine part series of a conversation between NPE President Diane Ravitch and Senator Lamar Alexander’s Chief of Staff, David P. Cleary. You can access the entire series here.



What about the bottom 5% of schools by test scores? There is always a bottom 5%. Close them and another group will be the bottom 5%. What does the law say about the way these schools are treated?



States are required to identify the lowest performing 5 percent of schools every 3 years, based on the state’s individual accountability system. From there, a state will decide what to do about helping those schools improve. We ended the NCLB model of prescribing one-size-fits all solutions to apply to poorly performing schools, and we ended the requirement that states determine which schools are poorly performing based just on the federally required tests.

ESSA does not require states to close the schools in the 5 percent category, or convert them to charters, or fire the teachers or the principal, or any of the sanctions required under NCLB. States will now have the flexibility to determine what to do about these schools. In fact, the law explicitly prohibits the Secretary from specifying how states identify the bottom 5 percent of schools and any school improvement strategy or activity that a state or school district uses to improve those schools in section 1111(e)(1)(B)(iii)(V) and (VI) of the new law. Some states will choose to keep the existing types of sanctions, others will take entirely different approaches, but the key issue is that it is now for the state—and not Washington, D.C—to decide what to do about these schools that are struggling with improving student achievement.

Additionally, the law does not require that a new bottom 5 percent of schools be identified every 3 years. States determine what schools are identified as the bottom 5 percent, and some of these schools may still be in the bottom 5 percent 3 years later. All decisions about identification of schools are left up to the states.