For more than a decade, American public education has been faced with this fundamental issue: providing the best quality education and proving their accountability in doing so. Last year, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was a breakthrough in prescribing a well-rounded approach in education reform. With the rules put in place, now the hard work of implementation will be up to states in 2017. And with the final rules issued last November, the Department of Education handed over ownership to the states, so they could define their own goals and performance measurement and rely on local solutions.

Last week, Education Week released their Quality Counts 2016 report which, for the third year in a row, gave the nation a C grade in public education. It also examines how states are taking steps to turn the ESSA blueprint into a finished structure. Today, we take a deeper look inside how Education Week measures “success” and what it means for the next phase of ESSA.

Three Standards of Measurement
So what’s the methodology of deciding which school is setting up students for a lifetime of success, and which are letting them down? Education Week set out to determine whether a child is given an early start in K-12, which would result in achieving certain educational and income benchmarks as adults. The report relies on three categories of critical performance for a state: their Chance-for-Success Index, K-12 Achievement, and School Finance. Within these categories, there are 39 indicators based on original analyses of state and federal education data.

Diagnosing the States That Fell Behind
There are some states that have seen their ranking fall significantly. For instance, Florida ranked 29th in the country – a major decline compared to 2011, when they were fifth in the nation. New Mexico’s state schools ranked last. They did fare better than most states when it comes to equitably funding public schools across all districts, and managed to raise their grade from an F in 2010 to D in 2016. However, their student-achievement scores, such as high school graduations and test results, were the worst in the country.

Interestingly, after digging deeper into their Chance-for-Success Index, you will find there are some factors that influence state rankings but are somewhat out of the schools’ control. In the case of Florida and New Mexico, they’ve attributed their low grades to the state’s educational policies. And also in New Mexico, their state faces a tremendous hurdle with its increasingly high poverty rate and English language learners, resulting in their public school system’s overall low reading proficient rates.

Some states have expressed that the Quality Counts report unfairly judges their education progress based on challenges like these that are complex and not solvable by the school districts. And there are startling budget cuts looming for some states like Wyoming, which ranked eight out of fifty states in the 2016 report – but may quickly slide after the anticipated $1.8 billion shortfall by 2022, in the aftermath of Wyoming’s energy decline.

The Challenges of ESSA Implementation
The Quality Counts report comes at a critical time, when state lawmakers are working to meet the spring deadline for submitting their ESSA plans to the Department of Education. There are a few big challenges on the road ahead for school districts this year. With greater flexibility comes greater responsibility, meaning that the states are being asked a lot in the next phase of implementation. Instead of relying solely on test scores, as was the case with the No Child Left Behind Act, states are being called to use a variety of measures. Now states can move away from evaluating their teachers by student test scores, putting the work back on the state to define what makes a teacher effective.

According to the Center on Education Policy, “ESSA implementation could look radically different on the ground, from one state to the next,” taking into account how states will differ in budgets, capacity, and budgets. The question remains, what can and will states do with more control and more flexibility to design their own plan for success in the future? And in the case of historically overlooked students, what more can they do for them?


Read More About ESSA in 2017: Later this week, we’ll be diving more into the topic of ESSA and the challenges of implementation for public school districts.