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Ed. Dept. to Give Some Waiver States Fast Track to Longer Renewal

By Alyson Klein — November 13, 2014 8 min read
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States seeking to keep their waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act will have to do more to show how they plan to identify and intervene in low-performing schools, including those that are missing achievement targets for subgroup students, according to guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education Thursday. But they won’t have to provide any data to show their new systems are actually improving student achievement,

This set of waiver renewals is likely the Obama administration’s last best chance to put its stamp on the NCLB law before leaving office in early 2017. So the decision to renege on a pledge, 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.

Meanwhile, a select, but still unspecified, group of states whose teacher evaluation systems are considered “on track” by the department—about 10 such states, sources say&mdash:will have the option to apply for a four-year waiver extension by Jan. 30. These states will go through an extra-special, 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 waiver renewals that will last through the 2017-18 school year.

The fast track states may appreciate the quick approval, but it’s not really clear how valuable that extra year really is. 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

So is the department doing anything to raise the bar for states on renewal? There are some new requirements. States will have to show, for instance, 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 kids (aka “subgroup” students).

And they’ll 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 big achievement gaps can’t get the highest rating possible on their state accountability system. That seems to be a direct response to a report put out earlier this month by the Education Trust, 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 administration is requiring waiver states to do enough to hold their districts accountable for the performance of subgroup kids.

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

But there’s a big question going forward: Will states have to make substantial changes to their accountability systems—some of which are embedded in state law or at least state regulations—to comply with this requirement?

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.

They’ll 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 kids graduate from high school ready for higher education or the workforce.

None of this adds up to a big departure from what states are currently being asked to do.

“I don’t think they are really making significant changes. It’s more beefing up requirements here and there,” said Anne Hyslop, a senior analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, a non-profit 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.”

Overall, she said, waivers seem to have gotten away from the Education Department. “The department is really riding a tiger” with waivers, Hyslop said. “They can’t kill the tiger, because it’s their tiger. [But] we haven’t done anything to make policy better.”

On Track on Teacher Evaluation

The department has given states lots of leeway when it comes to the trickiest piece of waiver implementation: teacher evaluation. Most recently, the department allowed states to have a whole extra year—this school year—to incorporate student test scores into teacher appraisals. That meant states didn’t have to transition to new assessments aimed at getting students ready for college and careers at the same time they were also moving toward new teacher evaluations. More twists and turns here.

Which states have stayed on track, at least in the department’s view, on teacher evaluation?

At least nine states were told in letters from the administration extending their waivers that their teacher evaluation systems are on track and that they could qualify for a longer, “extra-special” waiver renewal—Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, New York, Nevada, Tennessee, and Virginia. (See our waiver map here and below.)

So will those be the same states that will get expedited renewal? Maybe. But at least two of those 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 system going forward.

The department is also allowing states to apply for additional flexibility on testing in middle school math, and when it comes to using Title I funds.

No Outcome Data

The decision not to require improvement in student outcomes is an about-face for the department, which just over a year ago, said that student progress would be a key factor in the waiver-renewal process. (Flashback: “After only a year and a half of implementation, it is too early to use student outcomes in making renewal decisions,” guidance released in August 2013 said, “however the Department anticipates that any future extension of these waivers will be outcomes-driven, based primarily on whether or not [a state] has improved student achievement and made progress towards closing achievement gaps.”)

Still, even though more time has passed, it might have been very difficult for the department to make improvements in student outcomes a requirement in waiver renewal, given that waivers are relatively new and in many places tests and standards are changing—making it difficult to compare how a state is doing now to how it was doing before, under NCLB.

But the department has been working on profiles that show how students are faring under the waivers as opposed to under the NCLB law. And so far, it hasn’t made those profiles public. That means, for now, anyone wanting to study the waivers has no idea whether or not they are actually improving school performance and student achievement.

Reaction from the Field

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the president of the National Education Association, was hoping the department would go much farther in its guidance, potentially relaxing requirements on standardized testing.

“Today’s guidance could have provided hope for educators and students who want to focus primarily on teaching and learning rather than high-stakes standardized tests,” she said in a statement. “We are deeply committed to student success and opportunity for all kids and we know that testing is a part of the process, but it should not be the primary focus.”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, had a similar take. “The waiver guidance issued today 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. It’s basically Race to the Top without the funding,” she said in a statement. “It doesn’t take into consideration the pressing need in the 21st-century economy to help all kids become critical thinkers and problem solvers, learn team work, and develop resilience and persistence.”

But Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, sounded like a happy camper, even though he’d prefer a real honest-to-goodness NCLB reauthorization to waivers.

“I am pleased that Secretary Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education listened to state education leaders and developed a straightforward waiver renewal process that we believe will create more stability as states implement accountability systems aligned with college-and career-ready standards,” Minnich said in a statement. “Through these new systems, many states have been able to use more relevant measures of student achievement and been better able to determine when a school is performing well.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is expected to become chairman of the Senate education committee in January, considers the guidance to be federal overreach. The department has “heeded no warnings and made no progress on shrinking its National School Board reach. Today’s guidance shows the department using waiver renewals to impose even more mandates on states and school districts, such as those concerning state accountability systems and teacher evaluation systems, which are not required in the law.”

Both Alexander and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chariman of the House education committee, said they would like to work towards renewing the NCLB law.

Here’s a map showing which states have gotten waiver extensions, and which ones have been told they could get a longer waiver renewal. (Look for the orange dot.)