Teaching Profession

Ed. Dept., Arizona Clash Over Waiver

Accountability plan has renewal in limbo
By Michele McNeil — September 16, 2013 5 min read
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Arizona may be the next state in trouble over its No Child Left Behind Act waiver after it submitted a final draft of its accountability system that does not meet federal demands on high school graduation rates or teacher evaluations.

When Arizona won a one-year NCLB waiver in mid-2012, the federal approval came with two stipulations: The state had to increase the weight of graduation rates in its high school rating system, and it had to use student growth on state tests as required by federal rules as part of its teacher-evaluation system.

Arizona’s waiver was set to expire at the end of the last school year unless the state met those federal conditions and the flexibility was renewed. That renewal is now in limbo.

With the state’s refusal to accede to federal demands, it’s unclear what action U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will now take. Mr. Duncan has repeatedly said that his preference is to work with states as a partner and not to revoke waivers.

“Arizona committed to the requirements in its approved request, and we are holding all states accountable for the commitments that they made,” a department official said last week.

At stake for Arizona is flexibility for a school year that’s already underway.

“From our perspective, at some point in time we need to do what’s right for Arizona, as opposed to bending in every direction every time there’s a change from the federal department,” said Debra Duvall, the executive director of Arizona School Administrators and a former superintendent in Mesa’s district.

High-Risk List

Already, three states—Kansas, Oregon, and Washington—are on high-risk status after federal officials determined they didn’t meet their conditions on teacher evaluations. Ultimately, states can lose their waivers if they don’t meet federal conditions.

Showdown

Arizona Education officials are facing off against U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan over two conditions attached to the state waiver under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Graduation Rates

• The Department of Education wants graduation rates to count for 20 percent of a high school’s grade; Arizona sets the weight at 15 percent.

Teacher Evaluations

• Federal officials want Arizona to require districts to use data from state assessments in tested grades and subjects for student growth; state officials give districts flexibility on this.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education; Arizona Department of Education

Since 2011, the federal Education Department has awarded NCLB flexibility waivers to 41 states, the District of Columbia, and eight districts in California. Most of the waivers were for a two-year period and are up for renewal now, for the 2014-15 school year. With the renewal comes even more federal strings—such as that states not only design teacher-evaluation systems linked to student growth, but also use those evaluations to make sure at-risk students have equal access to effective teachers.

In Arizona, state and federal officials are stymied over the importance of graduation rates. At issue is 5 percentage points: Arizona weights graduation rates at 15 percent in its new school grading system. Federal officials, who are under pressure from advocacy groups to improve high school accountability, want 20 percent. The rest of a high school’s grades in Arizona are based on other academic or college- and career-readiness factors, such as test scores.

But State Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, an elected Republican, said Arizona wants to concentrate on more than just the number. “Just because you have a warm body and you put a diploma in their hands you haven’t done them any favors,” he said.

The second area in which the state and federal officials seem to be at a stalemate is teacher evaluations. Changing Arizona’s teacher-evaluation system to meet federal guidelines has proved even more difficult, because the state started its new method for judging educators back in 2010, before waivers even came along.

Now, the state and federal officials are arguing over how Arizona should measure student growth and the role of state assessments in teacher evaluations. Specifically at issue is how teachers of tested grades and subjects are evaluated—and to what extent districts should have flexibility to determine how data from state tests should be used to measure student growth.

“We are so far ahead, and now our rules don’t fit the federal guidelines. We’re not going to keep changing our rules,” said Karla Phillips, the state education department’s director of cross-divisional initiatives.

Overall, Mr. Huppenthal is highly critical of Mr. Duncan’s promise of flexibility, which comes with a slew of requirements favored by the Obama administration. Those requirements include what some view as prescriptive solutions for school turnarounds and teacher-evaluation systems in particular.

“We just think the federal department of education needs to up its game in terms of how this is all going to work to improve education,” Mr. Huppenthal said.

Tough Federal Stance

From the federal department’s standpoint, the flexibility is optional, made as an effort to help states as Congress stalls in reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which NCLB is the current version.

“States are not required to choose that path as we all wait for reauthorization of No Child Left Behind,” a department official said.

Now, Mr. Huppenthal says he’s facing a Hobson’s choice. Either he gives the federal officials what they want, compromising what he says he believes is best for the state, or he refuses to give in and is left with nothing in the way of flexibility—which means he has to abide by NCLB as written. That means working toward a goal of 100 percent student proficiency in math and reading and seeing more schools face penalties as they fail to make adequate yearly progress.

“We would end up with 80 percent of our schools in school improvement,” he said. “It adds a lot of bureaucratic choices. We are faced with a policy dilemma and we have two environments that are very distasteful.”

The Arizona education department is trying to get a sense from its 500 districts of what they want—federal strings and flexibility, or NCLB requirements. Ms. Phillips said districts’ top concern is the requirement that a school that fails to hit academic goals under the NCLB law must set aside 15 percent of the school’s Title I funds for tutoring.

Ms. Duvall of the state superintendents’ association indicated that districts also appreciate the new, single rating system that defines accountability in the state and has replaced the NCLB requirements.

“That flexibility is very important,” she said. “But you also have to reach a point in time where you ask how much change can be tolerated.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 2013 edition of Education Week as Ed. Dept., Arizona in Clash Over Waiver

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