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Washington and Wisconsin Approved for NCLB Waivers

Two more states—Washington and Wisconsin—have been approved today for waivers that will allow them to get out from under mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The two approvals mark an important milestone in the NCLB waiver process. Washington and Wisconsin's approval brings the total of approved states to 26. That means that, officially, more than half the states in the country are no longer subject to the accountability system at the heart of the much-maligned NCLB law.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who dreamed-up the waiver plan, sent out a fist-bumping press release to celebrate.

"It is a remarkable milestone that in only five months, more than half of the states in the country have adopted state-developed, next-generation education reforms to improve student learning and classroom instruction, while ensuring that resources are targeted to the students that need them most," said Duncan. "A strong, bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act remains the best path forward in education reform, but as 26 states have now demonstrated, our kids can't wait any longer for Congress to act."

So what's in these waivers? Washington state's waiver is conditionally approved, just for the 2012-13 school year. Washington has proposed an accountability system that meets all of the Education Department's requirements, but the state is hoping to move to a more sophisticated system that includes measures of student achievement, student progress, and graduation rates, in the 2013-14 school year. The state is still working on the details. Once Washington gets its new system in place, it will need to be approved by the department. (Georgia, which was approved for a waiver earlier this year, is in a similar position.)

Washington's approval also hinges on its teacher- and principal-evaluation system. The state is piloting some new methods of measuring a teachers' impact on student growth, but hasn't yet completely finalized the system. The Evergreen State will have to submit its final guidelines to the department next year in order to keep its waiver after the coming school year, a department official said.

To get the waiver, the Washington also provided a lot more detail on interventions for priority schools (the bottom 5 percent of performers in the state). Washington also has an interesting new twist on school support. It's going to set up "innovation zones" where schools can get freedom certain state requirements. (Washington has no charter law.)

Wisconsin is moving to a new accountability system, in which a school's progress will be measured against that of the top-performing schools in the state. Like other states, it's also using a "super subgroup," combining special education students, English-language learners, and low-income students for accountability purposes. In order to get approved for the waiver, the Badger State had to provide more information on its exit criteria for schools to get out of priority or "focus" status (the next 10 percent lowest performers). It also provided a lot more detail on how it would implement college- and career-ready standards and new teacher and leader evaluations.

For those keeping score at home, there are still 10 states, plus the District of Columbia, that are waiting to have their waivers approved: Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, Oregon and South Carolina.

But two of those states, Idaho and Kansas, took the added step of getting their Annual Measurable Outcomes (AMOs) frozen for one year while they wait for their waivers to get the thumbs-up. More on what states needed to do to qualify for the freeze here.

One state—Iowa—has been turned down for a waiver, but was also able to freeze its AMOs for a year. Other states that intend to apply for waivers by the next deadline, in early September, also got approval for an AMO freeze: Alabama, Alaska, Maine, and West Virginia.

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