NCLB Waiver Requests Present New Path Forward

Four state education officials spoke about their states' waiver requests, allowing them more flexibility with meeting No Child Left Behind goals.
by | November 15, 2011
 

As 11 states submitted their applications for exemption waivers from No Child Left Behind's (NCLB) current proficiency deadlines Monday, four state education departments officials explained the policies that their states hope to enact instead at a Council of Chief State School Officers briefing. Education officials from Colorado, Florida, Georgia and Massachusetts applauded the federal shift from a culture of rigorous and high-stakes testing, as flourished under NCLB, to the more flexible and innovative environment suggested by the Obama administration's waiver program.

"When I think of NCLB, I think we're at point not where not only perfect is the enemy of good, but perfect has become the enemy of excellence," says Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts commissioner of elementary and secondary education, referring to the law's goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by 2014. Now there is a need to "allow some discretion, some flexibility in the systems being brought forward."

Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Tennessee were the other states that applied for waivers, the U.S. Education Department announced Tuesday after the Nov. 14 deadline. In order to be granted a waiver, officials must demonstrate that they will maintain rigid accountability metrics, even with the elimination of the federal Adequate Yearly Progress system; focus on low-performing schools and ways to reform them; and outline policies to improve both student and teacher performance, according to guidelines established by the department and President Obama.

The four reps say they will focus on supplanting federal accountability measures with their own state measures, and stressed the need for multiple metrics (rather than one set of tests) for assessing student achievement. In addition, these leaders discussed establishing guidelines to improve low-performing schools in their states and developing curriculums that prepares students for postsecondary education and a career.

For example, Massachusetts is designing a longitudinal database that would allow officials to track student performance on a year-to-year basis, Chester says. That data could provide further insight into how students are progressing, rather than relying solely on a snapshot taken once a year during a test. Georgia is adopting a similar database for the same purpose, says John Barge, state school superintendent. Robert Hammond, Colorado's commissioner of education, says his state is also working to assess whether students are "catching up, keeping up or moving ahead" as a means of determining how schools are performing.

Massachusetts would also use that year-to-year information to revamp its teacher evaluations and tie student growth to those reviews. Colorado's Hammond and Mike Grego, a special adviser to Florida education commissioner Gerald Robinson, say that their states plan to incorporate student growth rates a significant part of new teacher evaluations.

Chester says Massachusetts, as part of the 24-state Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers consortium (which Colorado, Florida and Georgia have also joined), is planning to administer the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey (TIMSS) to assess how its students compare to the global competition. The state is also revising its English language arts and math standards to align with the national Common Core standards, a tactic that all four states are taking.

Colorado is also expanding its content focus, Hammond said. No Child Left Behind received criticism for placing all its emphasis on math and reading at the expense of other subjects. Hammond said his state was working to develop accountability measures for writing, science and social studies to match those for math and reading. Other states have stated a desire to do the same.

All four reps also discussed how they would identify lowest-performing schools and implement reforms to improve them. In Massachusetts, the bottom four percent of schools must develop a six-year trajectory to increase student achievement or be subject to a state takeover. Georgia will use new performance assessments to pinpoint the bottom 5 percent of schools. Colorado is asking the federal government to allow flexibility with Title I funding [for schools serving students from low-income families], so some of that money could be used to improve schools in the bottom 5 percent not labeled as Title I. The Education Department says that Title I flexibility is a common request among the states that applied for waivers.

In Georgia, Barge wants to encourage better attendance as a means of improvement. A recently conducted state study found that just over 26 percent of ninth graders who missed 15 days or more graduated from high school in four years. Georgia is setting up an informational website for educators to search and discuss best practices for promoting attendance, Barge says.

Other policy threads were common among the states' applications: embracing technology in the classroom is a priority. Florida intends to transition to all e-textbooks by 2016, Grego says, and the state is one of the first to require that all high school graduates take at least one virtual class. Massachusetts has instituted online-based test-building modules for its teachers, Chester says.

The Education Department announced that the next deadline for waivers will be in mid-February. The final deadline is expected to be later in the spring, although no more specifics were available, according to the department. All 50 states are expected to eventually apply.

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