Some Waiver States Can Seek Pause on School Ratings

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States that are seeking to renew their waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act and are in the midst of making the transition to new "college- and career-ready" assessments can ask for permission to hit the pause button on their school ratings through the 2015-16 school year, under new guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education.

Schools in states that get the flexibility—which is being offered through the waiver-renewal process—could remain frozen in place, accountability-wise, for one school year. That means schools could perform poorly on the new tests and wouldn't have to worry about being bumped down into "priority" or "focus" status, the two waiver categories for lower-performing schools. Public perception would still be a concern, though, since test scores would still be public even if they didn't result in accountability changes.

Advocates for states were pleased with the change, tucked away in frequently-asked-questions about waiver renewals published by the department last month. "We're happy that they are offering this flexibility," said Carissa Miller, the deputy executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers. "From the get-go, we wanted the space and breathing room to implement assessments."

And Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy development at the Education Trust, an organization in Washington that advocates for poor and minority children, thinks that the idea of a one-year pause is smart policy. But she cautioned that accountability shouldn't be suspended indefinitely.

"This is something we think is necessary for the first year of a brand-new assessment," she said. "We think a one-year pause is reasonable policy. We need to be really mindful that this doesn't slip into a two-year or four-year pause."

Pause Button

The U.S. Department of Education added a few new wrinkles and incentives for some states looking to extend their waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, tucking them into answers to "frequently asked questions" listed in recent guidance on renewals. Among the highlights:

  • States transitioning to new college- and career-ready assessments can ask for a one year "pause" on their school rating systems, so ratings would remain through the 2015-16 school year.
  • States that want to participate in an evaluation of how the waivers have affected student outcomes would get a $1 million incentive to do so, and could even be eligible for a longer renewal.
  • Renewal applications will be reviewed by Education Department staff members, not by peer reviewers, to help streamline the process.

Some Limitations Apply

Notably, the flexibility doesn't necessarily extend to every waiver state. States that want to pause their rating systems will have to let the department know that in their renewal applications, and explain their reasoning. In addition, the option only applies to states that are rolling out new tests this school year.

The Education Department has already allowed some states to take a pause on accountability as they make the transition to new college- and career-ready assessments. Sixteen states received "double-testing" waivers allowing schools that were piloting the new assessments in the 2013-14 school year to use only one test, for some or even all of their schools. Some states got double-testing waivers for all their students—including California, which doesn't even have an NCLB Act waiver.

It's unclear if states and schools that have already gotten a double-testing waiver will be eligible for the newest flexibility—if so, that could amount to a two-year pause in accountability for some.

The latest offer of flexibility doesn't come as a surprise, said Anne Hyslop, a senior policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting organization in Washington and an expert on NCLB waivers. In addition to the double-testing waivers, she noted that the department stayed mum when states developed "long, drawn-out" transition plans to the Common Core State Standards.

But she said she's hoping the department sticks to its word and doesn't offer an accountability pause to states that aren't trying out new assessments this year.

"This kind of flexibility isn't going to be appropriate for all states," she said.

The department also made it clear in its new guidance that it is offering states an incentive—$1 million a year—to participate in an evaluation that would help determine whether waivers actually worked when it comes to moving the needle on student achievement. And it seems possible that states could even get to keep their waivers for up to four years if they participate in the evaluation.

A state may "request and receive approval of its [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] flexibility renewal request for a fourth year, through the 2018-2019 school year, if a funded evaluation would benefit from an additional year of implementation," wrote Deborah S. Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in a letter to states highlighting key parts of the frequently asked questions.

But the Obama administration will be long gone by 2018-19, and it's an open question whether the next president will continue with the waivers, much less the evaluations. It would have been better if the department had started this initiative earlier, Ms. Hyslop said. Still, this is "better late than never."

No Peer Reviewers

Another twist: There won't be peer reviewers for the waiver renewals. All of the work of assessing state applications will fall to department staff.

The guidance is also notable for what's not there, including any sort of clear definition of "achievement gap."

In broader waiver-renewal guidance released in November, the department told states they needed to ensure schools with big achievement gaps can't get the highest rating possible on their state accountability system. That seemed to be a direct response to a report put out last fall by the Education Trust which looked at how states were identifying schools with significant achievement gaps in their accountability systems.

'Take This Seriously'

But there's nothing in the initial waiver-renewal guidance, or in this new list of frequently asked questions, that would give states any indication of what constitutes a big achievement gap.

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That's understandable, said Ms. Hall. "If they tried to define 'achievement gap' in a particular way it would not have worked for all states," she said.

But the lack of a definition doesn't mean states shouldn't take the directive to heart, she added. "It's incumbent on states to take this seriously not just as one more compliance exercise. It's also incumbent on the department to evaluate state plans rigorously, incumbent on state advocates to pay attention and push their states in the right direction."

Vol. 34, Issue 15, Pages 20-21

Published in Print: January 7, 2015, as Added Waiver Leeway for Some States
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