Five more states, including Virginia—a state that did not sign onto the Common Core State Standards—have received wiggle room from the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act.
The other four states that got waivers on Friday were Arkansas, Missouri, South Dakota, and Utah. For those keeping score, that means 24 states have been approved by the U.S. Department of Education for flexibility, with 13 still waiting. The department is planning to issue more waivers in coming weeks.
Virginia's waiver could put to rest the idea that states must adopt the common standards in mathematics and English/language arts in order to get a federal waiver. Some conservative critics have said the federal government has overstepped its authority by requiring states to adopt college- and career-ready standards to get a waiver, which, they argued essentially forced states to embrace the common core—or go through a lengthy and difficult process of coming up with their own standards.
But the Obama administration has long insisted that the requirements merely call for states to set standards that will get students ready for college or the workforce. Those standards could be the common core, or they could be standards that the state's university system agrees will prepare high school graduates for credit-bearing college coursework.
Virginia's waiver—which included letters from its institutions of higher education, including officials in the community college system— shows that the second option can work.
In fact, Virginia's final approved waiver doesn't make any big changes to its standards or the process for setting them, a department official told me. The original versions of all five of the applications approved today were strong on the standards and teacher quality portions of the waiver, the official said, but all needed clarity when it came to accountability, including addressing the needs of specific subgroups of students, such as English-language learners and students in special education.
Virginia's experience shows that the idea that states must join—or stay on board with—common core in order to get a waiver is untrue, said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
"That's simply and absolutely a myth," he said.
Four of the five applicants are going ahead with some sort of combined "super subgroup"—a strategy that has raised eyebrows of those in the civil rights community who worry that the performance of individual groups could be masked or overlooked.
States that got approval Friday gave the department more information on how they would ensure that schools focus on subgroup students, even when combining them for accountability purposes.
For instance, Margie Vandeven, an assistant commissioner at the Office of Quality Schools in Missouri, said the department asked a lot of questions about how its accountability system would capture students in special education and English-learners. Still, she added, "We stayed very true to the original intent of our original submission."
And Arkansas revamped its application to include a provision that would bar schools that miss achievement targets for individual subgroups from becoming reward—high performing—schools, while South Dakota overhauled its accountability system so that schools can be labeled as "focus" schools—considered among the bottom 15 percent of schools—if they miss achievement targets because of the performance of a single subgroup of students.
And all five of the states revamped their applications to better spell out how they would intervene in schools that are missing achievement targets because of a particular subgroup—even if those schools aren't in the "priority"—bottom 5 percent—or "focus"—next 10 percent—categories.
At least four of the states—Missouri, South Dakota, Utah, and Virginia—revamped their goals to make sure that they were rigorous enough. For instance, Virginia's Annual Measureable Objectives initially didn't increase over time, so the state revised its application to change that. Virginia also reworked its consequences for focus and priority schools that don't improve overtime.
Utah went through a lot of back-and-forth with the department over whether its AMOs should be focused primarily on proficiency (getting students over a particular bar) or growth (improving student performance over time), Judy Park, associate superintendent for student services and federal programs at Utah's department of education told my colleague, Andrew Ujifusa, author of State Edwatch.
"We were determined to keep growth as a major focus in our accountability system. And at the end of the day we were allowed to do that," she said. The Beehive State "never approached this process with an attitude of, 'We'll do whatever it takes to get this approved,' " she added.
Teacher Evaluation Systems
The states also made some changes to the teacher evaluation systems spelled out in their original applications. For instance, Arkansas and Missouri revised their systems so that teachers whose students don't make much progress can't be rated at the highest levels.
That was a piece we had to get real creative with," said Tom Kimbrell, the commissioner of education in Arkansas. "It kind of stretched us."
And almost all of the states that got approval Friday revised their applications to better spell out how students in special education and English-learners in transitioning to college- and career-ready standards.
As have states that already have receive waivers, those in this batch generally gave the Education Department high marks for its responsiveness and said they liked the waiver process.
"It's helped us to really look through our practices, how we want to build our system ... over the next few years," Melody Schopp, the secretary of education for South Dakota, told Andrew.
So what happens to states that don't get approved for a waiver by the start of the school year? The Education Department has allowed states that are planning to apply for the relief—but need more time to get their plan together—to freeze their AMOs for a year.
To be eligible for the one-year freeze, states have to take certain steps, such as adopting college- and career-ready standards, making data about student achievement gaps public, and sharing data about student growth with teachers. The option was designed to give states that are planning to apply for a waiver in the early fall a "transition year." Iowa, which had its waiver request turned down recently, is the first state to apply for this flexibility.
But what about those states—such as California and Texas—that want no part of the administration's conditional waivers? It's less clear that they'd be eligible for the one-year freeze.
Staff Writer Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this report.