Federal

High Stakes for States on NCLB Waiver Compliance

By Alyson Klein — May 12, 2014 6 min read
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No Child Left Behind Act waivers—initially billed by the Obama administration as a collaborative effort to help states get beyond the outdated NCLB law—have moved deep into the compliance phase, leaving states and the U.S. Department of Education to negotiate over the finer points of plans, rather than discussing big-picture policy ideas.

The details, however, can prove make-or-break for states, which risk losing their flexibility altogether if they can’t come to an accord with the administration.

With Washington state’s waiver revoked for failure to pass legislation requiring test scores in teacher evaluations, the three states remaining on high-risk status have submitted proposals to the Education Department detailing how they plan to get themselves out of danger.

What’s more, Michigan—and perhaps other states, including Indiana—may be on the brink of being placed on high-risk status as well, which could add more heft to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s threats to get tough. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia currently have waivers, and Mr. Duncan told state chiefs last November that he is likely to “revoke a waiver, or two, or three.”

State-Level Woes

Like Washington state, Michigan doesn’t require that assessment data be used in teacher evaluations. And, like Washington, Michigan will need to seek a legislative change to include them.

But, unlike Washington, Michigan did not immediately need new legislation to get started in implementing its teacher-evaluation system, which is why the state hasn’t faced serious federal sanctions yet.

Michigan’s waiver was approved—with no strings attached—through 2013-14 because the Wolverine State required student growth on state tests during the pilot phase of its teacher-evaluation system in the 2012-13 school year. And Michigan didn’t need any additional legislative authority until the 2014-15 school year, which is when the system is slated to be implemented statewide. Plus, the state adopted official guidelines for teacher evaluation that included student growth based on state assessments, which were approved by the federal Education Department in 2013.

But, in a March monitoring report, the department made it clear it is keeping an eye on Michigan. If the state doesn’t get the legislation it needs by the time the department must decide about a waiver extension, the administration may put Michigan on high-risk status. If that happens, the state would get a couple of months to enact the fix, since Michigan’s legislative session is year-round, an Education Department official said.

Mike Flanagan, the state superintendent, is clearly worried that the legislature won’t act.

“I believe we will lose our federal waiver, and that will be bad for kids,” he said in a statement. “Our state legislature doesn’t believe we will. I hope they’re right. It’s an awfully big gamble to take, though.”

Indiana, which recently became the first state to overturn its adoption of the Common Core State Standards, was sent a letter by the Education Department May 1 explaining that conditions have now been placed on its waiver.

States didn’t have to adopt the common core in order to get an NCLB waiver; they simply had to embrace standards that will get students ready for college or the workforce. Indiana’s state school board recently approved a new set of standards to replace the common core. The Education Department is now asking the state to provide evidence that these new standards pass muster with the state university system, as well as outline its plan for assessing students based on the new standards.

Glenda Ritz, the Indiana state chief, said her state is ready to go along with the federal department’s requests.

“My department is prepared to demonstrate full compliance with our flexibility waiver and submit amendments that are necessary due to legislative action that has been taken since the 2013 legislative session,” she said in a statement.

High-Risk Gambit

In the three states still on high-risk status, teacher evaluation was a big piece of the problem. But none of them need new legislation to hang onto their waivers.

Oregon education officials, working with the Oregon Education Association and other key advocacy groups, have come up with a teacher-evaluation system that they think will pass federal muster. The system will be based on a matrix under which student growth on assessments will account for 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. The rest will come from a mix of factors, including observations and leadership skills, said Crystal Greene, a spokeswoman for the Oregon education department.

“We have every indication that this meets all their requirements,” Ms. Greene said.

Kansas is also ready with its new teacher-evaluation plan. Back in August, the administration expressed concern that the state hadn’t piloted its teacher-evaluation system, and therefore hadn’t demonstrated that growth is a significant factor in evaluations.

Now the Sunflower State has decided to offer its districts a model plan, called the Kansas Educator Evaluation Protocol, that they can choose to adopt or not. Districts that decide not to go for the state option can devise their own plans, or go with another model. But all plans must include multiple measures of student growth, including scores on state assessments, as well as meet other guidelines outlined in the Kansas waiver.

Importantly, Kansas isn’t planning to specify that student progress on state tests make up a particular percentage of a teachers’ evaluation. That choice will be largely up to districts. Instead, Kansas defines “significant” as “demonstrating student growth in multiple ways using valid and reliable measures of student growth,” said Bill Bagshaw, the state’s assistant director of teacher licensing and accreditation.

Arizona Complexities

Arizona was put on high-risk status because of an issue with its teacher-evaluation system, but also got into a tussle with the Education Department over how much graduation rates factor into a school’s overall rating. (In Arizona’s case, ratings are reflected through letter grades, on an A through F scale.)

The state wanted graduation rates to count for 15 percent of a school’s overall rating, while the federal government was hoping for 20 percent. Arizona has countered that it gives a heavy weight to other factors that are essential to students’ readiness for college and careers, such as Advanced Placement course-taking and success.

Putting more of a premium on graduation rates would, in fact, make it easier for schools to earn a grade of A or B on the state’s grading scale, said Karla Phillips, the director of cross-divisional leadership initiatives at the Arizona Department of Education. The state is including data with its request to back up its claims, Ms. Phillips said.

Arizona’s teacher-evaluation law, meanwhile, calls for student growth on tests to make up 20 percent of a teacher’s overall rating. But it isn’t specific about whether a district or charter school must use state or local assessments. That’s similar to the problem Washington ran into.

In its new request, Arizona will make it clear that state assessment results must be a “significant” factor. It will leave it up to local districts and charters to decide just what that means in terms of a percentage, until 2016. At that point, the state plans to revisit the issue, when it has additional data from new assessments aligned to the common core.

A version of this article appeared in the May 14, 2014 edition of Education Week as Tangles Abound as Waivers Move Into Compliance Phase

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