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Ed. Dept. Allows Montana to Rewrite Its NCLB History

Montana and the U.S. Department of Education have ended a No Child Left Behind showdown after federal officials agreed to let the state reset its proficiency targets so more schools would make "adequate yearly progress" this year.

This NCLB do-over, announced today by Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, means 155 schools will make AYP when they shouldn't have. This year, proficiency targets for schools to make AYP were supposed to rise to 92 percent in reading and 84 percent in math. For the previous three years, proficiency targets had been flat at 83 percent in reading and 68 percent in math.

Instead, the U.S. Department of Education let the state revise its proficiency targets through its accountability workbook (not through a formal waiver) to be 84.4 percent in reading and 70 percent in math.

The reason? Montana revised its academic standards in 2005 and had the opportunity to reset its proficiency targets then, but it didn't. "We're allowing them to take the opportunity that they didn't take then now," department spokesman Justin Hamilton said.

Meanwhile, details on the department's formal waiver process to give more flexibility to states, in exchange for adopting reforms prescribed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, are due in mid-September, he said.

Under No Child Left Behind, states are supposed to gradually increase proficiency targets until 2014, when 100 percent of students are supposed to be proficient in math and reading. States can keep those targets flat for three years in a row, at most, and then they must increase them. So when Juneau informed the department in April that she had no intention of increasing Montana's targets for a fourth year in a row, the department responded by telling her she was out of compliance with the education law, which could cost her federal Title I dollars. The department gave Montana until Aug. 15 to fix things.

So, this is how we got to the NCLB do-over being approved.

Juneau got her Congressional delegation involved in fighting for Montana's cause, according to the press release her office put out today. In that release, Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat—and supercommittee member— said: "I spoke directly to Secretary Arne Duncan to urge them to work with the state, and I'm pleased to see the Department of Education has reached an agreement with Montana."

By letting a state retroactively revise its proficiency targets so that schools do better under the law, the department is setting a precedent that it's willing to use any loophole or technicality to, depending on your perspective, help states out or avoid making tough decisions against states. This, too, despite vows in June that the Education Department would "enforce" the law.

After a similar faceoff with Idaho chief Tom Luna, the department also let that state keep its proficiency targets level, too, because Idaho hadn't taken advantage of the three-years-in-a-row allowance.

Department officials say they want to give states breathing room until the details of the package come out next month. But one question I have is: If states can just go back and redo their proficiency targets so schools keep making AYP, why apply for a waiver, especially if you have to adopt reforms prescribed by the Obama administration?

To be sure, by 2014, states are supposed to have 100 percent of their students proficient. But if states do nothing and skip the waiver process, what will the department do to enforce the law then?

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