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Published in Print: December 3, 2014, as New Guidance Offers States Roadmap to NCLB Waiver Renewal

States Get Fresh Guidance on NCLB Waiver Renewal

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States seeking to keep their waivers of key No Child Left Behind Act provisions will largely be able to stay the course on teacher evaluation, school turnarounds, standards, and other policy areas that have faced implementation hurdles, under recent guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

But the department didn't attach many new strings to the waiver-renewal process, back tracking on a pledge to require states to provide any data showing their new systems are actually improving student achievement.

The set of waiver renewals covered by the latest guidance is likely the Obama administration's last best chance to put its stamp on the NCLB law before leaving office in January 2017. So the decision to retreat from a proclamation made over a year ago—to require states to show they are making progress in student achievement in order to keep their waivers—is significant.

Qualifying for Another Round

The U.S. Department of Education largely steered clear of attaching major new strings to the renewal of waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. But states must take some steps in order to keep their waivers in place next school year and beyond.

Among them:

DESCRIBE

how they plan to ensure all students will graduate from high school ready for college and the workplace, including students in special education, English-language learners and racial minorities.

DEMONSTRATE

that a school may not receive the highest possible rating on state’s accountability systems if it has big achievement or graduation-rate gaps.

DETAIL

how the state plans to intervene in low-performing schools and schools with substantial achievement gaps.

DESCRIBE

a statewide strategy to monitor implementation of the waivers at the district level.

Meanwhile, a small group of states—including Florida, Kentucky, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia—where the teacher-evaluation systems are considered "on track" by the department will have the option of applying for a four-year waiver extension by Jan. 30. Those states will go through an expedited renewal process and could have their flexibility in hand by early spring; they would get to keep their waivers through the 2018-19 school year.

Other renewal applicants—the vast majority of states—will have until March 31 to apply for waivers that will last through the 2017-18 school year.

The fast-track states may appreciate the quick approval, but it's not clear how valuable that extra year will be. By 2018, the country will be well into another presidential administration, and it's possible a new education secretary will by then have decided to suspend the waivers altogether.

New Requirements

States will have a few more requirements to gain renewals. For instance, they will have to show that they have plans in place to intervene in schools that are missing achievement targets for students in special education, English-language learners, racial minorities, and disadvantaged children—also known as "subgroup" students.

And they will have to detail the sorts of "rigorous interventions" they are using for low-performing schools and schools with big achievement gaps.

Plus, states will have to make sure that schools with such achievement gaps can't get the highest rating possible on the state accountability system. That seems to be a direct response to a report last month from the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy organization for low-income students, which noted that schools in Florida, Kentucky, and Minnesota were able to earn top ratings on accountability systems, despite the poor performance of subgroup students.

And congressional Democrats and civil rights groups have long been concerned about whether the Obama administration is requiring waiver states to do enough to hold their districts accountable for the performance of subgroup students.

"I think it was a hugely important step in the right direction," Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, said of the change. "We're frankly hoping many states will plan to go beyond that."

But Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank in Washington, raised concerns that the requirement could penalize schools that are improving the achievement of all their students—which leaves in place gaps, but also means that poor and minority children are making progress alongside their more advantaged peers.

"There's just a fundamental problem with baking achievement gaps into accountability systems," Mr. Petrilli said. "You don't want to root for white students or middle-class students to perform worse. You want all students to make progress over time."

A system that penalizes schools with big gaps can make it impossible for any school with a diverse population to get a good rating, Mr. Petrilli said.

In addition, states will have to describe their plans to monitor district implementation of accountability systems under the waivers. And they'll have to update their waiver plans to show how they are going to "continuously improve" those systems.

No Big Departures

States will also have to show that they have consulted with major groups on waiver implementation, including teachers' unions, community organizations, local districts, parents, and students. And they'll have to explain how they plan to continue to ensure students graduate from high school ready for higher education or the workforce.

None of the new guidance from federal officials adds up to a big departure from what states are already being asked to do.

"It's more beefing up requirements here and there," said Anne Hyslop, a senior analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit consulting organization in Washington. "On the policy side, they are not necessarily doing anything new or ambitious; they are not collecting any new outcome data. It's kind of just the same-old, same-old."

What's more, the decision not to require improvement in student outcomes is an about-face for the Education Department, which just over a year ago said that student progress would be a key factor in the waiver-renewal process.

Still, even though more time has passed, it might have been difficult for the department to make improvements in student outcomes a requirement in waiver renewal, given that the waivers are relatively new and that, in many places, tests and standards are changing. That would make it tough to compare how a state is doing now with how it was doing before, under the originally enacted NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

On the Fast Track?

At least nine states—Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, New York, Nevada, Tennessee, and Virginia—were told in letters from the administration extending their waivers that their teacher-evaluation systems were on track and that they could qualify for a longer waiver renewal.

At least two of the states, Georgia and Mississippi, told Education Week earlier this year they were seriously considering applying for extra time to incorporate student test scores into their teacher-evaluation systems, which could put them out of the running.

Meanwhile, states interested in extra time on teacher evaluation will have to apply for that flexibility as part of the renewal process. They'll have to demonstrate the progress they've made so far on evaluations and give a good reason for the proposed change. And they'll have to explain how they plan to continue to tweak their teacher-evaluation systems.

Reaction From the Field

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, was disappointed in the waiver guidance. She had hoped the department would go much further, potentially relaxing requirements on standardized testing.

"The waiver guidance ... says: No Child Left Behind failed, but you can get out of it if you have college-and career-ready standards, high-stakes testing on those standards, and teacher evaluations that rely heavily on testing," she said in a statement. "It's basically Race to the Top without the funding."

Related Blog

But state schools chiefs were pleased, overall, with the guidance and feel the administration listened to their feedback on the need for provisions such as a streamlined waiver-renewal option for some states, said Terry Holliday, the state commissioner of education in Kentucky and the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Still, the chiefs' group would prefer a full-fledged reauthorization of the ESEA to temporary waivers.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is expected to become the chairman of the Senate education committee when the new Congress convenes in January, considers the guidance to be federal overreach.

The Education Department has "heeded no warnings and made no progress on shrinking its National School Board reach," he said.

Both Mr. Alexander and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, said they would like to work toward renewing the ESEA.

Vol. 34, Issue 13, Pages 16,19

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