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Miller to Duncan: Waivers May Offer Too Much Leeway On Grad Rates

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House Education committee, is worried that the department isn't holding states' feet to the fire when it comes to monitoring graduation rates in states that have received waivers from parts of the No Child Left Behind Act.

In fact, Miller wrote Secretary of Education Arne Duncan a letter last Friday, saying, basically, that he's worried that states are trying to wiggle out of the graduation reporting regulations that former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings put in place just before she left office in 2008. Those rules required states to use a uniform metric for calculating grad rates.

Before those regulations were issued, Miller wrote, states used "non-regular diplomas such as general equivalency diplomas (GEDs); set meaningless goals and growth targets for improvement; and did not account for the graduation rates of subgroups of students. Additionally, as was well documented, students who performed poorly on state tests were 'pushed out' of school to increase the school's overall performance on assessments with little to no consequences."

The Obama administration's waiver plan gave states a lot of flexibility on major pieces of the NCLB law, but it didn't allow them to get wiggle room on the 2008 graduation regulation, Miller noted in his letter. But some of the 30-plus states that have gotten waivers so far "clearly do not uphold graduation rate accountability," in their approved plans, he wrote. For instance, some made graduation rates a pretty small part of their overall accountability systems. And others include the use of GEDs.

So what did the department think of Miller's letter? "No one works harder and cares more about kids than Congressman George Miller. We appreciate his concerns and want to assure him that we will vigilantly monitor states to make sure their kids getting over the bar and graduating them," Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the department, said in an email.

Some members of Congress, including Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, see the entire waiver plan as the administration trampling on congressional authority, since Congress is ultimately supposed to make changes to the NCLB law.

But Miller and other Democrats have been supportive of Duncan, arguing that the waivers are within the secretary's rights and that he had to issue them since Congress wasn't moving forward.

Still, this isn't the first time Miller has expressed concern about the specifics of the waivers. Miller and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, wrote another letter earlier this year outlining big concerns about the accountability provisions in some of the first- round waiver applications, including the movement towards "super subgroups" which lump special education students, English language learners, low-income kids and others together for accountability purposes.

UPDATE: Apparently, Miller isn't the only one who is worried that some of the waivers are weak when it comes to graduation rates. A bunch of groups, ranging from the Alliance for the Excellent Education to the National Council of La Raza to the National PTA to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are also worried. They too sent Duncan a letter, on exactly the same day, echoing many of Miller's concerns. Read it here.

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