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State Grapples With New U.S. Education Law

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe gave the State Board of Education an update on the new federal education law. Holcombe, far left, speaks with board Chairman Stephan Morse and Vice Chairwoman Sean Marie Oller.

Congress got rid of the No Child Left Behind act when it passed the new federal education law at the end of last year.

Now Vermont is trying to understand its roles and responsibilities in developing an accountability system required by law as it waits to get the new rules from the U.S. Department of Education.

Even before No Child Left Behind ended, Vermont was working on its own way of reviewing schools.

The new system, calledEducation Quality Reviews, will be built around what the state calls annual snapshots of schools around the state.

The snapshots, or assessments, will include test scores, but also determinations on safe school climates, personalized student  learning plans, staffing and financial efficiencies.

After years of battling the requirements and outcomes of No Child Left Behind the state was done with using only test scores to designate failing schools.

Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe says there's been progress in coming up with a new accountability system, but now that the new federal education law, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, is being rolled out Holcombe says the state needs to assess how the state and federal rules overlap.

"So here's the problem," Holcombe says. "This was well underway in the initial pilots and now we're looking  at ESSA reauthorization. And we need to just stop and see where we are and think about how we want to manage this transition."

There are still a lot of unknowns about ESSA, but the federal government will expect states to test students, and use those test scores to make annual determinations on how schools are doing.

Developing a new state accountability system "was well underway in the initial pilots and now we're looking at ESSA reauthorization. And we need to just stop and see where we are and think about how we want to manage this transition." - Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe

Holcombe says the state relies on federal dollars that support low income children, and if the U.S. Department of Education is going to require testing, Holcombe says the state will have to hold the assessments, even if the state accountability system relies less on the results.

So she says while the Agency of Education wants to come up with a plan that works for Vermont, there will be federal hoops to jump through.

"So I can't debate whether we test annually," Holcombe says, "because I'm required to test annually until this state wants to give up all that money, which I don't see anyone at the current moment planning to do."

As the U.S. Department of Education comes up with its new rules, Holcombe says the state should pay attention.

There will be ways to align the two systems, according to Holcombe, and in turn most efficiently leverage the federal dollars attached to testing and other accountability tools.

But while the federal accountability system will likely once again be built around identifying failing schools and tracking annual outcomes, Holcombe says the state system will not be identifying low performing schools, and will pay more attention on how schools grow and advance in moving student s forward.

Still, Holcombe points out, the federal education department will have to approve the state plan, and it will be easier on everyone if Vermont's quality review aligns with the new law.

Holcombe says she wants to find the intersections between federal law and common sense.

"Is there a way to have them work hand in hand so some of the work we do for the state is also satisfying some of the federal requirements?" she asks.

The Vermont Agency of Education will hold public hearings as it develops its plan, which will be available in draft form at the end of this year.

The state plan has to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education at the beginning of 2017.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state. 
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