North Carolina does generally well according to national education standards, peers say, but it needs to take better advantage of opportunities to improve.

North Carolina scored highest in federal goals related to supporting schools and continuous improvement categories, according to peer reviews of the 34 states that submitted Every Student Succeeds Act plans this past fall.

But in nine categories, North Carolina scored lowest in academic progress and exiting improvement status. North Carolina scored about average in the standards and assessments, indicators, all students, and identifying schools categories.

ESSA is a revised version of No Child Left Behind, a 2002 law intended to improve education standards across the country. Under the 2015 law, states were required to form ESSA draft plans and submit them to the U.S. Department of Education to receive federal funding. The ESSA plans are supposed to detail how state and local education agencies will work to improve student performance and hold schools accountable for those grades. North Carolina submitted its plan Sept. 18.

Bellwether Education Partners and Collaborative for Student Success released the reviews. The two nonprofit education consulting groups enlisted 40 bipartisan state and national education experts to review each state’s plan.

“Our goal was to provide constructive, straightforward information to state education agencies and advocates in an effort to strengthen state plans and to inform parents so that they could engage with their state policymakers,” said Jim Cowen, executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success.

“We hoped that with extra time and resources given to the 34 states that submitted in the fall, plans would incorporate more best practices and innovative ideas. Unfortunately, many states like North Carolina failed to use this extra time and information to strengthen their plans.” Scott Sargrad, managing director of K-12 Education Policy at the Center for American Progress  and a reviewer who looked at North Carolina’s ESSA plan.

“North Carolina was one of the few states that had a really impressive and thoughtful plan for what they were going to do if schools were really struggling,” Sargrad said. “They really described a comprehensive system of support for these struggling schools.”

According to peer reviewers, North Carolina’s ESSA plan is grounded in robust data and includes strong emphasis on academic achievement indicators.

Sargrad, though, said North Carolina doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of the opportunity under ESSA to broaden the definition of school quality and student success as measures holding schools accountable beyond test scores and graduation rates.

“Other states have taken on looking at measures of college and career readiness and taking and passing AP courses and looking at chronic absenteeism,” Sargrad said. “North Carolina doesn’t seem ready to do that, but they did talk in their plan that the state wants to study some of those other indicators and possibly add some later, so it’s kind of a missed opportunity for now.”

Compared to other states, North Carolina excelled in the section of supporting schools, he said.

While North Carolina’s ESSA plan had some highlights, it also had several areas for improvement. The peer reviewers suggest North Carolina’s proposed system give too much credit to achievement today relative to progress over time. This pushes schools to focus narrowly on current student proficiency scores. In turn, the proposed system fails to recognize low-performing schools making rapid, significant progress.

“The nice thing is that states have the opportunity to continue to make adjustments and improve what they are doing and learn from how things are going to change what’s in the plan or change their strategies,” Sargard said.

The U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to the Department of Public Instruction on Dec. 13 asking for clarification and additional information from North Carolina’s ESSA plan. DPI has until Dec. 28 to submit the revised ESSA plan, although they can request an extension if needed.