Vt. Agency of Education officials say a bumpy start to their new data collection system forced the state to miss a self-imposed deadline to identify struggling schools in mandated reports to the federal government.
The deadline is contained in Vermont’s plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which spells out how the state will spend federal funds, track progress of schools and districts and support them when needed.
One of ESSA’s requirements is that states must share testing data with the U.S. Department of Education – here, that includes the annual SBAC exams, administered to Grades 3-9 annually – to identify struggling schools in efforts to close the achievement gap and decide what schools receive additional funding.
Federal regulations previously required states perform these accountability checks by the end of the calendar year, a deadline Congress rescinded in 2017 along other Obama-era rules. But Vermont still identified that date in its ESSA plan, according to Michael Hock, the AOE’s state assessment director.
“As a state, we still committed to that,” he said. Now, no one knows when that will happen.
Parents and educators have access to individual test scores, and the AOE published statewide results last fall. It planned to release school-by-school results in December, a few months later than usual, but Hock’s team still hasn’t received annual school census data, used to provide a snapshot of enrollment at the time of the exams, as of this week.
It’s unlikely the state will face any ramifications from missing its own deadline. A U.S. Department of Education spokesperson said the department wants states and districts to report testing results “as soon as possible,” but noted there’s no required timeline.
The delays haven’t sat well with the AOE’s assessment team, however. “I won’t hide my frustration that we haven’t been able to meet those dates,” Hock said.
Vermont officials blame the hold up on their new statewide longitudinal data system, which they say will eventually streamline the process by letting the agency cull information from districts that until now manually uploaded the results. Vermont used a $4.9 million federal grant to implement the system.
“It’s required a really big investment of personnel both here and in districts,” said Ted Fisher, an AOE spokesman who described the challenge of designing a system that “plays nice with everybody.”
Fisher said the agency received all required data from districts earlier this month but found more errors than expected: Some submitted custom files instead of those provided by the AOE, or failed to include certain categories altogether. The agency is still combing the data to fix the errors, Fisher said, and in some cases, contacting schools directly to remedy the mistakes.
Though he acknowledged that process occurs every year, Fisher said the difference is the agency doesn’t know how long fixes in the new system will take in.
“Down the road, this is going to be a lot easier to deal with,” he said.
Passed in 2015, ESSA gave states more control over how to measure student achievement compared to its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act. But ESSA continues to emphasize closing the achievement gap by requiring states to track performance of historically marginalized groups, like students of color or low-income populations.
Hock said his team typically publishes the test results prior to the school year so struggling districts know their status and parents have a good indicator of their school’s performance.
“You can’t make an accountability decision without having the test results available,” he said.
Meanwhile, on the local level, administrators use the data to see how their test scores match up with similar districts and better understand trends, said Amy Cole, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the Essex Westford School District.
Cole uses an internal data system to view test scores within EWSD’s 10 schools, but the school-by-school data puts local performance into context. For example, if a particular cohort struggled or excelled, she can see whether it was a statewide trend or unique to Essex.
She empathized with the AOE’s workload and said she expects the process to be smoother in the future, especially on her end. “We manually upload a lot of information about our students and our staff every year. It’s pretty extensive,” she said. “When they get this up and running, our system will be tighter, [and] all our data will be cleaner.”
Fisher, the AOE spokesman, said in a phone call after The Reporter’s print deadline that the agency expects to release the data this spring.
“We’re working with the federal government to make sure that we’re fulfilling our requirements,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include additional information about the AOE’s timeline offered after The Reporter’s deadline and to clarify what ESSA requires the state to report to the federal government.