More Than Half of States Now Have NCLB Waivers

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Reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act remains stalled in Congress, but the Obama administration continues to push ahead with big changes to the accountability system at its core, with more than half the states now having been approved for waivers from major mandates of the law.

The U.S. Department of Education so far has granted conditional waivers to 26 states from mandates such as the 2013-14 deadline for bringing all students to proficiency on state tests and the NCLB law's teacher-quality requirements. In exchange, states have promised to adopt college- and career-readiness standards, measure teacher effectiveness in part by student outcomes, and set alternative goals for student achievement.

Nine states and the District of Columbia are waiting to hear about waiver applications submitted in February. Early this year, the department issued waivers to 11 states that applied last fall.

Keeping Score

As of July 13, 26 states had received federal flexibility from some provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, and nine states and the District of Columbia were still waiting to hear from the U.S. Department of Education about pending pplications.

In the latest two rounds of waivers—June 29 and July 6—seven states were added to the approved list. Among them was Virginia, which has not adopted the Common Core State Standards. Its inclusion could put to rest the idea that states must adopt the common standards in mathematics and English/language arts in order to get a federal waiver.

The other states that got waivers in the past month were Arkansas, Missouri, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, seven states have received an alternative form of leeway—separate from the conditional waivers—that enables them to hit the pause button on a key component of the NCLB compliance clock. The states were given permission to freeze their goals for "annual measureable outcomes"—or AMOs—for one year while they work on their waiver plans or wait for the final word on pending applications.

Out of Bounds?

Some critics have said the federal government has overstepped its authority by requiring states to adopt college- and career-readiness standards to get a waiver—essentially forcing states, they argued, to embrace the common core—or go through a lengthy and difficult process of coming up with their own standards. So far, 46 states and the District of Columbia have signed on to the common standards.

The Obama administration has long insisted that the requirements merely call for states to set standards that will get students ready for college or the workforce. Those standards could be the common core, or they could be standards that a state's university system agrees will prepare high school graduates for credit-bearing college coursework.

The waiver given to Virginia—the product of a back-and-forth process with the federal Education Department—doesn't require changes to the state's standards or the process for setting them, showing that the second option of going through the university system can work.

The notion that states must join the common core to get a waiver is "simply and absolutely a myth," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a conference call with reporters last month.

Still, to get the waivers, states had to make changes to their original applications. For instance, Utah negotiated with the department over whether its goals should be focused primarily on proficiency (getting students over a particular bar) or growth (improving student performance over time), said Judy Park, the associate superintendent for student services and federal programs in the Utah education department.

"We were determined to keep growth as a major focus in our accountability system. And, at the end of the day, we were allowed to do that," she said. The state "never approached this process with an attitude of, 'We'll do whatever it takes to get this approved,' " she added.

Iowa's Challenge

But Iowa had its bid denied after the federal Education Department decided that the state's education agency did not have the authority to enforce the requirement that teachers and principals be evaluated in part on student outcomes, a key component of the department's conditional waivers. In fact, state lawmakers passed a measure saying that changes to the teacher-evaluation system must get legislative approval, adding an extra stumbling block, said the state director of education, Jason Glass.

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"That created an unworkable situation," Mr. Glass said. "We've been negotiating with the U.S. Department of Education to try to find a way through this. It's just not possible. We are very disappointed that our state is [still] under the onerous shame-and-blame policies of NCLB for another year."

Still, he pointed out, the department's letter left the door open.

"The letter very carefully does not say 'denied,' " he said. "It says 'cannot be approved at this time.' " That means there is hope that if the legislature acts, Iowa could still get a waiver, Mr. Glass added. Iowa's legislature isn't in session.

Iowa still was able to join six other states—Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, and West Virginia—in getting one-year freezes on their AMOs, which are goals for the percentage of students states plan to bring to proficiency on state tests in a given year. That could help limit the number of schools identified for interventions under the 10-year-old NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Kansas and Idaho have waiver applications pending. The others, except for Iowa, are planning to apply for the flexibility in the fall.

Vol. 31, Issue 36, Pages 22-23

Published in Print: July 18, 2012, as Waivers Continue Chipping Away at NCLB
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