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Seven States Get NCLB Waiver Renewals, Including Opt-Out Friendly Oregon

By Alyson Klein — July 23, 2015 4 min read
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Seven more states got the green light from the U.S Department of Education Thursday to hang onto their flexibility from the mandates of the withering No Child Left Behind Act for at least one more year. They are: Alaska, Indiana, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, Tennessee, and Utah.

Tennessee received a four-year waiver renewal for sticking to its initial timeline on teacher evaluation. (That’s despite the fact that the Volunteer State dialed back the degree to which test scores would count in performance reviews.) And Utah got only a one-year reprieve, which is all the state asked for, because the waiver has become increasingly unpopular there. (The other option on the table was to ditch the flexibility altogether.)

Getting three-year waivers were: Race to the Top winner Maryland, which has had its own delays on teacher evaluation through test scores; Indiana, which was the first state to officially ditch the Common Core State Standards; Alaska, which never adopted the standards; New Jersey, which has had been a hotbed of activity for the testing opt-out movement; and Oregon, which just passed legislation making it clear that parents can opt out of standardized tests.

Specifically, the Oregon law, signed last month, would call for schools to inform parents twice a year of their right to exempt children from standardized tests. And it would also allow schools to calculate two sets of ratings for state-level accountability purposes. One rating would penalize a school for having lots of opt-outs, but the other wouldn’t.

Why does this matter? The NCLB law calls for 95 percent of a school’s students to take tests, or the school risks federal sanctions. The worry: that schools would encourage students who might not score well on the tests (including, say, students in special education or English-language learners who NCLB was designed to help) to stay home on test day.

Before the bill was signed, the Education Department warned Oregon that the legislation “proactively encouraged” opt-outs and said the Beaver State risked losing federal funds (but, crucially, not necessarily its waiver) if it went ahead with the legislation. Oregon passed the bill, anyway. And the department again expressed its dismay, but it hasn’t yet withheld the state’s federal funding (or apparently, held up its waiver renewal).

To be clear, the department may not have had much of a choice in renewing Oregon’s flexibility, even though the administration is still not a fan of the state’s opt-out law. Testing participation isn’t governed by waivers.

For those keeping score at home, the department has granted waivers to 24 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Not counting the waivers announced Thursday: Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. Every state with a waiver applied to keep the flexibility for at least one more year.

UPDATE: At least three of these states got permission for the accountability “pause,” which allows states that are switching to new tests to keep their school ratings the same for a year. The idea is not to penalize schools who bomb brand new tests. Alaska, Oregon, and Maryland received the accountability pause.

These states join Kansas, Nevada, West Virginia, South Carolina, Rhode Island, and Delaware, as well as the District of Columbia, in getting an accountability pause approved. Plus, five non-waiver states— California, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont, and Washington—will also be allowed to hit the accountability pause button, bringing the grand total of “paused” states to 14 plus D.C., by my count.

Arguably, such a pause is a step backward for accountability, a hot topic as Congress rewrites the NCLB law.

Also of note, nearly all of these renewals come with strings, or “conditions"—waiver speaks for things states need to follow-up on to keep their flexibility:

  • Oregon must show that it’s incorporating student growth into its accountability in grades 3 and 11.
  • Utah must do more to reach out to the education community and show that student growth is a part of its evaluation system.
  • Alaska must address community collaboration, plus make it clear that schools with big achievement can’t get the highest rating in its state accountability system.
  • New Jersey must work on engaging the education community, plus show that it is supporting low-performing schools.
  • Indiana must detail its plans for high school assessments and tests for students in special education. Plus it has to explain how growth will factor into educator evaluations.
  • And Maryland must revamp its system for identifying high-achieving “rewards” schools, make sure it is offering continued support to schools that recently got out low-performing status, and explain how student growth is figuring its teacher and principal evaluation systems.

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