• Nebraska has endeavored to align its ESSA plan with its existing strategic plan and accountability system, a process that began in 2014.


  • In addition, the state engaged in an extensive process to involve multiple stakeholder groups throughout the plan’s development.


  • The state’s mandatory ACT testing and inclusion of science and writing in the state accountability system are both strengths.




  • Nebraska’s vision is ambitious; however, its plan lacks detail.


  • The state neglects to connect the dots between its goals, its accountability system, and how it will identify schools in need of improvement. As a result, Nebraska misses opportunities to tie these together in meaningful and actionable ways.


  • Nebraska uses a four-tier system, which on the surface appears straightforward, but doesn’t differentiate how a school is actually performing. The state has also not given any indication of how it would hold schools accountable for low-performing subgroups of students.


  • On the issue of school improvement, Nebraska law mandates the identification of only three Priority Schools. That number should be expanded. The wait period over four years is too long for the identification of comprehensive support schools. Greater clarity is needed for what happens when improvements are not met.


  • There are a variety of instances where Nebraska takes an unnecessarily complicated approach. As a result, communicating the state’s goals, strategies, and outcomes to key stakeholders, like parents, could be very difficult and stymie efforts to achieve educational excellence for all of Nebraska’s students.


Click through the tabs on the left to see how Nebraska scored in each category.



Nebraska has outlined two sets of goals with the aim of increasing the number of its citizens “who are ready for success in postsecondary education, career education, and civic life.”


Nebraska’s goals were set in a strategic planning process, referred to often throughout its ESSA plan as AQuESTT (Accountability for a Quality Education System, Today and Tomorrow). The primary goal is that by 2026, the state will reduce the percentage of students who do not reach proficiency by half, including each subgroup of students. This goal applies to reading, math, and science proficiency. At the end of the 10-year period, if goals are met the “all students” category will have 82 percent proficiency in math, 89 percent proficiency in reading, and 82 percent proficiency in science.


A second goal set—which the state refers to as its challenge or stretch goals— accelerates both the rate and pace of change, aiming to reduce the number of non-proficient students by 70 percent in 5 years. This is a novel approach, in the event the first set of goals is insufficiently ambitious, but there is a tension created because having two sets of goals could create confusion and send different messages to different stakeholders, especially parents and educators.


For high school students, Nebraska has the goal of reducing the dropout rate for all students, including subgroups of students, to less than one percent.


In addition, the four-year graduation rates goal is 92 percent for all students and not less than 85 percent for any one subgroup. Nebraska also has a seven-year graduation rate goal of 95 percent for all students and not less than 90 percent for any one subgroup.


The graduation rate goals would be stronger if they held the same bar for all subgroups of students, and it’s not clear if they are sufficiently ambitious, given the long timeline coupled with the already high graduation rates for most subgroups. In addition, the ultimate goal for English learners is below the state’s stated ambition of not having any group below 85 percent.


Overall, Nebraska’s goals are fairly straightforward. However, there is little overlap with the goals and the state’s accountability system.



Nebraska’s standards, assessments, and accountability system are rigorous.


Nebraska is one of the few states that decided not to adopt Common Core or any of the Common Core assessment consortia. The high performance on NAEP suggests that Nebraska’s standards, assessments, and accountability system are rigorous. The plan could be strengthened by making clear the alignment between the state’s assessments and college and career readiness.


Nebraska uses the ELPA21 assessment for English learners, which is aligned to Common Core State Standards.


The state requires students to take the ACT in 11th grade. Absent an independent review, it’s unclear if the ACT is fully aligned with Nebraska’s state academic standards. While offering the ACT as the state’s official test offers many benefits, some of those key benefits may not extend fully to all students who require accommodations and may not receive college-reportable scores.


Nebraska could strengthen its plan by providing more information about their alternate achievement standards and aligned assessments for students with the most severe cognitive disabilities and ensuring that it has a process in place to meet the 1 percent cap on alternate assessments for those students.



Nebraska has a unique set of indicators that may help diversify what it means to be a good school, but there are concerns about the impact on the state’s accountability system.


The indicators include achievement, growth on reading and math (which it will measure in three separate ways), graduation rate (four-year and seven-year rates), science, “participation,” and what the state calls an “evidence based analysis” (EBA). The EBA is a questionnaire that each school completes to “explain its policies and practices” and is intended to acknowledge distinct circumstances and best educational practices. But while the EBA may be useful as a diagnostic tool, it’s not clear that it belongs in a high-stakes accountability system.


Once schools are held accountable for the results of the survey, there may be an incentive to be lenient with the scoring. Moreover, ESSA requires all accountability indicators be disaggregated by student subgroups, and a school-wide survey, like the EBA, would not meet that requirement.


The state proposes a complicated school identification process (see “Identifying Schools” tab) that makes it difficult to understand how influential each of the indicators will be in categorizing schools.


For high schools, the state uses graduation rates as a cap on the overall school’s rating.


If a high school has a graduation rate over 90 percent, it initially receives the highest rating; if its graduation rate is between 80 and 90 percent, the school cannot receive higher than a three rating overall; if its graduation rate falls between 70 and 80 percent, the highest rating it can receive is a two; and if a school has a graduation rate below 70 percent it automatically receives a one rating.


This could be a good way to ensure graduation rates matter, but Nebraska is not giving much incentive to on-time completion (by definition, the seven-year rate will always be higher than the four-year rate).


Also, the state does not provide any data showing how many schools fall within these various cut points.


On the English language proficiency (ELP) indicator, more information would be helpful.


The plan notes that they will set differentiated growth standards depending on initial ELP up to the six-year maximum and that interim targets will be based on annual growth. However, more information about what these student-level trajectories look like would be beneficial.



The state’s accountability system categorizes schools into one of four tiers—Needs Improvement, Good, Great, and Excellent.


The initial categorization is solely on average state test scores for reading, math, science, and writing tests for grades 3-8, and ACT for high schools.


These averages do not place any particular weight on students hitting grade-level performance targets. Moreover, initially categorizing schools based only on student proficiency will shrink variation and risks inflating scores.


From the initial categorization, Nebraska appears to make it difficult for the indicators to negatively impact schools’ final categorization, which means student proficiency will carry much higher weight than other indicators, including growth.


Nebraska’s chosen growth measures are complicated and may be confusing.


Schools’ growth performance is included in three separate ways: “Improvement,” “Non-Proficiency” and “Growth.”


If a school shows “Improvement” over three years in its average achievement score, the state will raise the score by one point. Another measure, referred to as “Non-Proficiency,” measures the three-year trend in the percentage of students performing below grade-level standards. This is not a simple calculation, and the way it is set up, a school could look better simply by having new, higher-performing groups of students, as opposed to helping any individual students make progress.


Another calculation, referred to by the state as the “Growth” measure, does follow individual students year-over-year. The state’s way of calculating growth is not exactly simple, as the state does not publish any sort of uniform cut point determination for the number or percentage of students making growth. This provides little front-end transparency for schools about what they need to shoot for.


Without more details, it is unclear how much growth will ultimately matter in the state’s system. The way they plan to calculate a school’s rating will prevent the state from prioritizing schools with particularly low growth, and it could ignore schools with high achievement and low growth, which will mask underperforming groups of students.



Performance of student subgroups is not included in Nebraska’s accountability system.


There is no mention of subgroup performance in determining schools’ beginning status, nor in the indicators which can move schools’ final rankings up or down.


The state has not yet defined how it plans to identify schools with low-performing subgroups, and it appears in violation of federal requirements around identifying a school where a subgroup, on its own, performs as poorly as the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state. Nebraska could consider using multiple years of data or lowering the n-size of students to mitigate this issue. In addition, using total assessment scores instead of individual student performance — and applying averages or percentages differently to different indicators — raises questions and creates transparency issues.


Interestingly, Nebraska has chosen not to include former students with disabilities into its subgroup, but will include former English learners into the EL subgroup.


This decision seems inconsistent and potentially problematic for diluting the needs of currently identified ELs. An alternative would be to create a separate former EL subgroup for accountability purposes, particularly if the n-size approach is adjusted.


Nebraska calls for a series of escalating sanctions if a school’s participation in assessments falls below the 95 percent threshold.


Notably, any school with a participation rate below 85 percent automatically receives the lowest rating in the state’s accountability system. However, the state would have a stronger plan if it applied similar rules to subgroup participation, rather than solely basing them on school-wide averages.



Nebraska will produce a rating for each school in the state using its four-tier rating system—but the way the state combines individual measures may be confusing to educators and parents.


Nebraska will produce a single summative rating for each school in the state using its four-tier rating system. While this system may appear simple on the surface, the way individual measures are combined may be confusing to educators and parents. Moreover, Nebraska’s plan to address subgroup under-performance lacks significant detail.


Because Nebraska does not give any data on how many schools are moved up or down,  it seems at least plausible that schools ranked at the top of the system—“excellent”—and those at the bottom—“need improvement”—will have their rating solely determined by their academic achievement score.


Nebraska will identify Title I schools in its bottom category, “Needs Improvement,” as schools in need of comprehensive support, and will document and share successful state intervention practices.


Nebraska will also identify schools for comprehensive support if it is a high school with a four-year graduation rate below 75 percent, or if the school “contains chronically low-performing subgroups.” Schools with identified non-proficient subgroups will be eligible for targeted support.


While Nebraska deserves credit for going beyond the federal requirement to identify high schools, it does not appear to define “chronically low-performing subgroups” and could benefit from additional clarity.


The state also has a designation required by state law called “Priority Schools.” The state must designate no more than three Priority Schools at a time. The state also plans to document successful practices in “Priority Schools” (schools that receive “the most intensive state support.”) and assemble them into toolkits that can be shared with all schools needing comprehensive or targeted supports.



Nebraska’s plan for supporting schools is fairly limited.


Comprehensive support schools must either revise their improvement plan, create a new one, or—in year four of identification—face the possibility of an “alternate administrative structure.”


However, the details of this are not provided. The plan for targeted support schools is even weaker. If a targeted support school fails to progress, the state will review its progress plan and may eventually identify the school for comprehensive support.


The state will rely primarily on state staff, education service units (ESU), and external consultants to support schools and help districts identify specific needs


Given there are 17 ESUs across Nebraska, it is likely that some are more effective than others. It is unclear whether there are systems in place to facilitate learning across the ESUs that can be leveraged to support the state’s weakest schools and districts. Nebraska might do well to consider these and other questions to maximize their talent and resources.


Nebraska also deserves credit for using a competitive approach to award school improvement funds to districts.


The state plans to develop a grant process to select from potential intervention strategies that align with the state’s AQuESTT system and priority school intervention process.


Nebraska’s plan could also benefit from articulating more extensive interventions for schools that fail to improve over time.


The plan indicates state leaders will continue to work with the Governor and the Legislature to determine how to improve consistently low performing schools, but the plan could benefit from a timeline for doing so.



Each school designated in need of improvement in Nebraska will complete a school improvement plan to be approved by the state.


Schools will meet exit criteria if they complete all goals identified in the improvement plan and no longer have low performing subgroups.


This could be a strong approach, but the state’s ESSA plan does not provide examples of what improvement plan goals might look like, so it is difficult to determine if this procedure will ensure that low-performing schools will demonstrate sustained improvements. Moreover, it may be possible for a school to meet its goals and still be in the state’s bottom 5 percent.



It is clear that Nebraska worked with various state stakeholders to integrate the state ESSA plan.


The state engaged stakeholders online and through in-person feedback sessions outlining their visions for the Nebraska education system. The state also conducted “ESSA Stakeholders Listening Tour” meetings throughout the state to engage feedback on the state’s plan.


Nebraska’s plan calls for ongoing engagement, but offers few specifics on how feedback will be used in future implementation efforts.


Nebraska’s plan calls for ongoing engagement with districts, regional service centers, and advocacy partners throughout ESSA implementation.  Unfortunately, the state’s plan is thin on specifics as to how they might learn and adapt from their implementation efforts. However, the plan does state it will do an annual review focused on identifying inequities and making revisions, changes, and modifications to the plan where necessary.


Moving forward, the state should consider accelerating their response to low performance given that, in some cases, struggling schools are being provided more-than-ample time to demonstrate improvement.

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