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Washington state educators consider NCLB waiver

by MICHAEL DASHIELL
Sequim Gazette

For years, educators at nearly all levels have railed against the No Child Left Behind Act, calling the federal mandate to see all public school students pass standardized tests by 2014 unreasonable and systemically aberrant.

 

Sequim school superintendent Bill Bentley says it’s akin to demanding that a doctor have 100-percent healthy patients.

 

“The law is extremely flawed in that respect,” Bentley said.

 

In addition, the law identifies schools as “in need of improvement” whether they missed achievement targets by a little or a lot and it does not ensure teachers are effective with students in the classroom.

 

No wonder, then, that state education leaders across the country are asking for an exemption from the federal law.

 

Washington state may join the fray, as the State Board of Education tackled this issue among others at its Jan. 11-12 meeting in Tumwater.

 

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, passed in 1965 as a part of the “War on Poverty,” emphasizes equal access to education and establishes high standards and accountability. The law authorizes federally funded education programs that are administered by the states. In 2002, Congress amended the act, reauthorizing it as the No Child Left Behind Act.

 

Congress has attempted to reauthorize the act since it expired in 2007. Enthusiasm to reauthorize it was rekindled in the spring of 2010 and again in the fall of 2011, but efforts have stalled.

 

In response, the U.S. Department of Education announced this September that it would begin to grant waivers to states from some federal requirements in exchange for a series of reforms.

New goals for improvement

The waiver process also would allow states to change their annual achievement goals significantly. The department gave states three options for making the change:
• Reduce by half the percentage of students, including student subgroups, who are not proficient, the so-called “gap-cutting option”
• Ensure 100 percent of students reach proficiency by 2020 (rather than by 2014, as No Child Left Behind requires)
• Use another sound method to define “ambitious but achievable” goals for all districts, schools and student subgroups.

The Obama administration, as noted in a Center for American Progress report, has been clear it wants states to engage in “ambitious but achievable” reforms rather than merely asking for a pass from the law. The intent is that states build their own robust accountability systems.

 

The administration also set forth four key principles for accepting waivers, asking that states, 1) ensure students are college and career ready, 2) develop state-defined accountability systems, 3) enhance teacher and principal evaluation policies and 4) reduce administrative burden on districts and schools.

Among those principles are further requirements defined by federal education officials.

 

Bentley notes that Sequim and other Washington state school districts already meet many of those requirements, but points out as an example the requirement that test data be broken down not only by student performance in race/ethnicity, special education and English Language Learners status, but also by student growth.

 

That term, Bentley noted, is a rather vague one. While Sequim schools use a testing system dubbed Measurement of Academic Progress, the exams are not used statewide. Educators argue that standardized tests used across the state such as the High School Proficiency Exam and Measurements of Student Progress — formerly the WASL tests — don’t accurately measure student growth.

 

“We think we have a test that measures student growth,” Bentley said of the MAP tests. “We have bought into that.”

 

Would other districts across the state agree to use that test to meet the “student growth” indicator? Would that be acceptable for the federal waiver? Will Washington schools be able to make numerous other changes to qualify for the waiver, including some sort of measurable objectives?

 

“There are no answers to any of those questions,” Bentley said.

 

Still, he noted, the three waiver options are more realistic than standing pat with the No Child Left Behind law that essentially requires every student in the state pass standardized tests by 2014.

 

“This is probably a better route to go of the two,” he said.

Getting in line

Eleven states submitted applications in November for the first round of waivers: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Understandably, no state chose the second option, but three states chose the gap-cutting option.

 

Eight states chose the last or “other” option. Massachusetts essentially proposed the gap-cutting option but over five years instead of six. Tennessee promised to cut its gaps in half over eight years, pledging to improve proficiency by 3 percent to 5 percent each year and to close achievement gaps between student groups by about 6 percent annually — rates that would outpace progress most states have made over the past few years under No Child Left Behind.

 

An additional 29 states and territories have expressed intent to apply in February.

 

Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has not made a final determination of whether or not it will apply but is moving ahead with writing an application that will be ready to submit on Feb. 21.

 

States will receive a waiver lasting two years, after which they may reapply for another two-year waiver.

 

Applying for and receiving a waiver would help Washington schools in the pocketbook. According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Washington school districts spent more than $12 million on required sanctions for the 2009-2010 school year.

 

But the overall goal of a waiver is to establish a model that works, Bentley said.

 

“The challenge is … to take all these new requirements and make them help all of our students,” he said.

“The bottom line is, we need to see this change student performance for the better.”

 


Reach Michael Dashiell at miked@sequimgazette.com.
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