Education Funding

Latest Round of NCLB Waiver Bids Critiqued

By Alyson Klein — May 15, 2012 6 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education is pressing the second batch of states seeking waivers of the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act to include in their applications more ambitious goals for student achievement, a sharper focus on students who historically have been overlooked, and a more specific set of remedies for perennially struggling schools.

Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia applied for waivers of NCLB provisions in February. The department is planning to approve the applications on a rolling basis, rather than announcing them all at once as it did with the first round of applicants.

On April 17, each state got a letter from the Education Department outlining the strengths and weaknesses in their applications. Education Week obtained and analyzed 22 of the 27 letters. Delaware, New York, Nevada, and Rhode Island, along with the District of Columbia, declined to share their letters.

The department’s queries mirror much of the feedback the first 11 states to submit waiver applications received before their requests were approved earlier this year, said Kirsten Taylor, a senior program associate with the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Needs Work

The U.S. Department of Education recently sent 26 states and the District of Columbia feedback on their requests for waivers of key parts of the No Child Left Behind Act. Education Week reviewed 22 of the letters; the other states had refused or failed to release details of the letters as of press time. Among the critiques raised by the department:


ARIZONA: The need for more-ambitious goals for student achievement, known as an annual measurable objective, or AMO.

ARKANSAS: A better explanation for how schools will be held accountable for the graduation rates of subgroup students.

CONNECTICUT: The need to do more to explain how it will identify high-performing schools (so-called “reward” schools).

IDAHO: Concern that the state didn’t set ambitious enough goals for student achievement.

ILLINOIS: Concern that the state is proposing too long a timeline for getting its teacher-evaluation system and interventions for low-performing schools up and running.

IOWA: Notice that long-range student-achievement goals aren’t high enough.

KANSAS: The proposal for a single subgroup of the 30 percent lowest-performing students has department officials worried some traditional subgroup students could get lost in the shuffle.

LOUISIANA: Concern that the state’s emphasis on the lowest-performing third of students doesn’t do enough to look out for subgroup students.

MARYLAND: The need for more specificity on how the state will validate the measures it’s using in the teacher-evaluation system.

MICHIGAN: Concern that graduation rates don’t play enough of a role in the state’s accountability system.

MISSISSIPPI: Concern that the state’s proposal to create a single subgroup of “at risk” students could obscure the performance of traditional subgroups.

MISSOURI: Lack of “a complete system” for holding all Title I schools accountable for student achievement.

NORTH CAROLINA: A call for the state to bolster its “exit criteria” for schools to get out of “priority” (bottom 5 percent) or “focus” (other low-performing) status.

OHIO: The need for more detail on how the state will support low-performing schools.

OREGON: Concern that the state’s AMO goals don’t meet the waiver package’s requirements.

SOUTH CAROLINA: The need for the state to do more to provide outreach to districts on its waiver request.

SOUTH DAKOTA: A better explanation for how student growth will be measured at the high school level.

UTAH: Various critiques of the accountability plan, particularly for the rigor of the AMO requirement, including for particular subgroups.

VERMONT: A weak explanation for the proposed accountability system.

VIRGINIA: Concern that the proposed accountability system fails to do much for subgroup students beyond requiring schools to report their progress.

WASHINGTON: Concern that the state’s proposed fixes for priority schools don’t match up with the department’s turnaround principles.

WISCONSIN: The need for more-specific exit criteria for priority and focus schools.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

“I think a lot of similar themes came up,” she said. After watching the first round of applicants engage in back and forth with the department, second-round states “expected that some of these questions were going to come up,” she added.

Subgroups at Issue

For instance, the needs of students in particular “subgroups” was a big issue across a number of applications in both rounds. In the first round, a state’s decision to move toward “super-subgroups"—which combine racial minorities, students in special education, English-language learners, and others into a single cohort for accountability purposes—raised alarm bells among advocates. The idea wasn’t nearly as popular this time around.

Still, some of the states that proposed the move were asked to provide more information to assure the Education Department that special populations wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle. The department, for example, pressed Arkansas to provide an “educationally sound” explanation for combining low-income students, English-learners, and special education students into a single subgroup.

Idaho wants to combine all racial minorities into a single subgroup. That had peer reviewers worried that schools wouldn’t focus closely on the needs of specific racial minorities and other special populations.

The federal agency also raised questions about whether Louisiana’s application would do enough to look out for subgroup students, leading to some tweaks, said John White, the state’s superintendent of education.

The back and forth on waivers has been about “how you take very complex [state and federal] policies and mesh them,” Mr. White said. And the department’s queries should be viewed in the context of Louisiana’s own accountability system, he said. It “goes far beyond what the federal government is asking for” when it comes to low-performing schools, which lose their autonomy if they do not improve, he noted.

So, far, Mr. White said, the process has been a smooth give and take.

“I see it as collaborative,” he said.

Graduation Rates

Some states were told they needed to shoot higher in setting goals for growth in student achievement, including Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, and Oregon. Some were cited for not doing enough to make sure that graduation rates are a significant factor in accountability. And some states were also told they weren’t being ambitious enough in setting graduation rates.

But the CCSSO’s Ms. Taylor said that in some cases the department primarily may be looking for more detail on how states will use the information they glean from their accountability systems.

“I think a lot of it may just be making clarifications,” she explained. “I think every state is coming into this to set the bar high.”

States that want to continue using free tutoring services as an intervention in their lowest-performing schools—including Arkansas, Illinois, and South Carolina—were asked to explain their rationale for the move and spell out a process for screening providers.

See Also

California’s state board has approved a waiver request that departs from the Education Department’s model. Read more: “Calif. Aims to Go Own Way in NCLB Waiver Bid.”

States also were criticized for their plans concerning “priority” schools (those defined as being in the bottom 5 percent of achievers) and “focus” schools (defined as those in danger of slipping into the bottom). In the Education Department’s view, some states didn’t do a good job of explicitly setting out how they would intervene in those schools. In other cases, the department deemed that they didn’t set a high bar for deciding when a school should get out of priority or focus status.

For instance, the department didn’t think Washington’s fixes for priority schools matched up with federal turnaround principles, particularly when it comes to teacher effectiveness and using data to inform instruction.

Offering Rewards

At the other end of the spectrum, many states were told they need to come up with a more specific plan to identify and honor top-performing or “reward” schools. Mississippi, for one, was asked to outline the “tangible rewards” it will provide to those schools, in the form of bonuses, grants, or greater autonomy.

Almost every state was told it needs to flesh out plans for training teachers and principals to implement the common-core state standards in math and literacy, which were developed through a partnership of the CCSSO and the National Governors Association. And many of the states were specifically asked to spell out how they would make the standards accessible for English-learners and students in special education.

Virginia—the only state that applied for a waiver but did not join the common-core initiative—got positive feedback from the department on the infrastructure it has put in place to devise strong standards. Virginia’s application included a lengthy description of its work with postsecondary institutions in the state, as well as national organizations such as the Washington-based Achieve and the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, to develop standards that will prepare students for credit-bearing college coursework, without jumping on the common-core bandwagon.

But Virginia and other states were criticized for accountability systems the Education Department contends don’t do much on subgroup accountability beyond requiring schools to report progress.

Almost every state was called out for not doing enough to explain how they were consulting with stakeholders on the waiver plans as a whole. In some cases—such as Idaho and South Dakota—states were asked to do more to reach out broadly to teachers, community members, and school districts. Kansas was told it needed to engage groups representing English-learners, students with disabilities, and Indian tribes. Ohio got similar instructions.

Some states that won the federal Race to the Top competition—including Maryland, North Carolina, and Ohio—received feedback letters that were relatively long on praise and comparatively short on areas to work on.

“I actually believe Ohio is in the home-stretch,” in terms of getting its waiver approved, said Michael Sawyers, the deputy superintendent there. The department’s list of concerns has narrowed to a few issues, he said, and the state has already resubmitted its application.

The Race to the Top experience helped Ohio figure out how to navigate “the federal protocol,” Mr. Sawyers said. “We’ve kind of learned how to play the game, if you will.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2012 edition of Education Week as Round-Two NCLB Waiver Bids Critiqued


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