Every Student Succeeds Act

States Pitch Changes as They Seek NCLB Waiver Renewals

By Alyson Klein — April 14, 2015 6 min read
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Even as Congress wrestles to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act, the Obama administration has one last clear opportunity to put its stamp on the outdated law before leaving office in early 2017: renewals of NCLB waivers, which could last through the 2018-19 school year.

Every state that currently has a waiver from provisions of the law—held by 42 states and the District of Columbia—would like to renew the flexibility for up to four more years, even as Congress appears likely to give far more leeway to states on accountability, standards, and teacher quality in a pending overhaul of the law.

An Education Week review of selected renewal requests submitted by the initial deadline of March 31 shows states seeking changes on a range of issues, including teacher evaluation, testing, and A through F grading systems for schools.

In particular, some states are grappling with how to determine when a school has made enough progress to no longer be considered low-performing.

The U.S. Department of Education will spend the next few months reviewing the renewal applications.

Already, five states that submitted their applications in January through a special process—Kentucky, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Virginia—have been approved. These states were permitted to apply for four-year waivers rather than just the maximum of three for most other states because they have remained on track in the tricky area of teacher evaluation.

Seeking Extensions

Most states have filed applications to renew their waivers from many mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act for up to four years. Five states were allowed to apply early, under an expedited process, and were renewed last month. Another 29 filed their applications by March 31, and will hear about their renewals later this year.

Early Approvals

Kentucky: Tweaked its accountability system to give schools additional credit for reducing the number of students scoring at the “novice” (lowest) level on state tests, and for moving students to a higher level. Schools would lose points if students slip from a higher level into “novice” or “apprentice” (second-lowest) level.

Minnesota: Added language to its waiver making the district role in supporting school turnarounds clear, consistent with a new state law.

New Mexico: Reworked its system for identifying and supporting low-performing schools for intensive interventions, as well as other schools targeted for extra help.

North Carolina: Revised its accountability system to issue schools grades on an A through F scale. The grades are based 80 percent on achievement and 20 percent on growth.

Virginia: Revised its teacher-evaluation system to give educators more-timely information about their students’ performance.

Highlights From Pending Applications or State Waiver Material

Colorado: Seeking to delay incorporating English-language learner’s test scores into school accountability systems until those students have been in the country for two years, instead of one. Wants to keep parents opting children out of state tests from counting against the 95 percent assessment participation threshold schools have to meet to avoid federal sanctions. Interested in exploring a local testing pilot, in which districts could use their own assessments in certain years in lieu of the state’s.

Connecticut: Seeking to delay incorporating English-language learner’s test scores into school accountability systems until those students have been in the country for two years, instead of one. Wants to delay incorporating student performance into teacher-evaluation systems until 2016-17, a year longer than the U.S. Department of Education has allowed.

South Carolina: Wants to drop its A through F grading system for schools, but keep its index for rating them. Is seeking to phase in its new teacher evaluation system, starting with elementary schools next school year, and then moving toward middle and high schools in the 2016-17 school year.

Florida: Wants to use the state’s A through F grading system as the primary metric for identifying low-performing schools and those with big achievement gaps. Schools would also be able to qualify for interventions because of low graduation rates. Would revamp the state’s process for supporting low performing schools to place greater emphasis on what the state calls “collaborative problem solving.”

Michigan: Proposing to make a shift from identifying the schools in the waiver program’s two categories of low-performing schools every year to identifying those schools every three years.

Source: U.S. Department of Education; Education Week

In general, the early-renewal waiver states were seeking only modest changes to their systems, not major revisions.

Accountability Snooze Button

State schools chiefs from Minnesota, New Mexico, and Virginia made it clear that even if waivers don’t stay in place very much longer—either because the NCLB law is rewritten or because a new administration comes in and takes a different approach—the plans could inform accountability systems for years to come.

“We don’t want to move the goal posts” for students and teachers, said Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota’s education commissioner.

At least a handful of states are taking the department up on a special, one-time-only flexibility: the ability to “pause” state-level school rating systems during the 2014-15 school year. This leeway was available to all states that are switching to new assessments aligned to new standards, not just states with waivers.

Among the states that indicated in their applications or on their websites that they are interested in the pause: Colorado, Mississippi, Oregon, and South Carolina. Vermont, which does not have a waiver, but is making the transition to a new testing system, also raised its hand for the pause.

“It does ease the pressure,” said Staci Curry, the director of accountability services for the Mississippi Department of Education, which will be giving one test aligned to the Common Core State Standards this year, but is in the market for a new version. Given all that transition, “we were talking about the need for [some kind of pause] before [the] feds even offered it.”

But one of the biggest challenges for states in dealing with waiver renewals has been an under-the-radar issue with serious ramifications for school improvement: Just how much progress a “priority” school—one that’s been singled out as among the 5 percent of lowest performers in the state and targeted for dramatic interventions—needs to make it before it gets to stop being a “priority” school?

And, on a similar note, when do “focus” schools—the 10 percent of schools with big achievement gaps between poor and minority students and the rest of the population, or which have other pervasive problems—get to stop being “focus” schools?

Figuring out an exit for priority and focus schools “has been a common point of contention among a number of states,” said Veronica Tate, the director of program administration and accountability for the Virginia Department of Education.

The issue, she said, is that some of the schools initially singled out for intensive interventions have improved significantly, but may not have jumped over the bar many states initially set for leaving improvement status.

Meanwhile, other schools in states may have greater academic need, including wider achievement gaps, but states may be reluctant to add them to the priority list, since there are only so many resources to go around.

Exit Strategy

Of the states that won early approval, New Mexico sought and got the Education Department’s blessing for what may be the most dramatic change. The question of an exit strategy for low-performing schools was at the heart of it.

Under New Mexico’s original system, schools were included in the priority category if they were considered as being in the bottom 5 percent based on a complicated formula that included graduation rates, achievement gap reduction, and their A through F letter grade.

Originally, schools could get out of priority status if they got an A, B, or C in the state’s accountability system for two years in a row. But that proved problematic, said Leighann Lenti, deputy secretary of program and policy at the New Mexico Public Education Department.

“Year over year, that school might have been making gains and progress, but they couldn’t exit if they didn’t meet a somewhat arbitrary threshold,” she said.

Instead, New Mexico is deciding which schools to put in the priority category based primarily on achievement or high school graduation rates. But the state is putting in safeguards to ensure that, once a school gets that label, it will get three years of interventions, and once a school is put in the focus category, it will get two years of sustained help.

Meanwhile, states are proposing other accountability changes. At least one—South Carolina—has moved to drop its A through F rating system.

Evaluation Extension

Teacher evaluation has generally been the trickiest area of waiver implementation. But the Education Department has also offered the most leeway in this area. Most significantly, last fall, the Obama administration allowed states transitioning to new tests to put off incorporating test scores into evaluations.

Some states still want more time. Connecticut said on its website it may seek a delay in incorporating test scores into teacher evaluations until the 2016-17 school year—a year longer than the Education Department wanted.

And South Carolina is seeking to phase in its new teacher-evaluation system, starting with elementary schools next school year, and then moving into middle and high schools in the 2016-17 school year.

Earlier this year, after months of drama and back-and-forth negotiations, Florida was able to get the U.S. Department of Education’s blessing for what amounts to a big change to testing for English-language learners. The Obama administration eventually allowed the Sunshine State to wait until English-learners have been in the country for two years before their test scores must count for school-accountability purposes.

Now, at least two other states—Colorado and Connecticut—are in the market for a similar deal.

And some states have expressed interest in replicating another special waiver: The department recently moved to allow New Hampshire to try local tests in lieu of statewide assessments in certain grade-spans in a select handful of districts. Colorado has said it would like to plan a similar local assessment system.

A few states have asked for additional time to get their applications together, including Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Louisiana.

Meanwhile, one state, Nebraska, is applying for a waiver for the first time. Nebraska doesn’t necessarily expect its waiver to be approved, however. The state’s teacher-evaluation system, which makes performance reviews based on state test scores optional, doesn’t conform to the federal vision.

But the state sees the application process as a good planning step, to help think through where Nebraska may want to go in the future on testing and accountability, said Matthew Blomstedt, the state chief.

A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2015 edition of Education Week as States Pitch Changes as They Seek to Extend NCLB Waivers

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