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Which NCLB Waiver State Will Be the First to Get Off High-Risk Status?

Washington state has already lost its flexibility from the No Child Left Behind Act. But three other states—Arizona, Kansas, Oregon—may be able to shed the dreaded "high risk" label soon. All three states had until May 1 to submit a proposal to the U.S. Department of Education addressing the feds' concerns with their waivers.

And in all three cases, as in Washington, teacher evaluation was a big piece of the problem. But the trio arguably had an easier lift than the Evergreen State, since none of them need new legislation to hang onto their waivers. Still, there's a lot at stake here. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told state chiefs back in November that he expected to "revoke a waiver or two or three."

Oregon was dinged last August because it hadn't quite figured out how to incorporate student outcomes into its teacher-evaluation system, and asked for an additional year to test out potential methods. Now, state education department officials, working with the Oregon Education Association and other key advocacy groups, have come up with a teacher-evaluation system that they think will pass federal muster.

"We have every indication that this meets all their requirements," Crystal Greene, a spokeswoman for the Oregon education department, said. "We're very confident that it will be approved." Under the new system, which will be based on a matrix, student growth on assessments will account for 20 percent of a teachers' evaluation. The rest will come from a mix of factors, including observations and leadership skills, Greene said.

Kansas is also ready with its new teacher-evaluation plan. Back in August, the feds expressed concern that the state hadn't piloted its teacher-evaluation system, and therefore hadn't demonstrated that growth is a significant factor in evaluations, or that there's enough differentiation among teachers.

Now the Sunflower State, has decided to offer its districts a model plan, called the Kansas Educator Evaluation Protocol, that they can opt to adopt or not. Districts that choose not to go for the state option can devise their own plans, or go with another model. But all plans must include multiple measures of student growth, including scores on state assessments, as well as meet other guidelines outlined in the Kansas' waiver. Importantly, Kansas isn't planning to specify that student progress on state tests make up a particular percentage of a teachers' evaluation. That choice will be largely up to districts. Instead, Kansas defines "significant" as "demonstrating student growth in multiple ways using valid and reliable measures of student growth," said Bill Bagshaw, the state's assistant director of teacher license and accreditation.

Bagshaw said he's feeling pretty good about Kansas' chances. "I don't have any reason to believe our waiver won't be approved," he said in an interview. "We're prepared, we've done our work. The reality is we just sit back and wait."

Arizona's situation is a bit more complex. The state was put on high-risk status because of an issue with its teacher-evaluation system, but it also got into a tussle with the feds over how much graduation rates factor into a school's overall rating. (In Arizona's case, ratings are reflected through letter grades, on an A through F scale.) The state wanted graduation rates to count for 15 percent of a school's overall rating, while the feds were hoping for 20 percent. Arizona has countered that it gives a heavy weight to other factors that are essential to students' readiness for college and career, such as AP course-taking and success.

Giving a heavier weight to graduation rates would, in fact, make it easier for schools to earn a grade of "A" or "B" on the state's grading scale, said Karla Phillips, the director of cross-divisional leadership initiatives at the Arizona Department of Education. And, even with a 15 percent weight, more schools earn an "A" or "B", so the state board is set to consider a "rescaling" proposal later this month. The state is including data with its request to backup its claims, Phillips said.

Arizona is also working through another technical, but important, issue on teacher evaluation. The state—which has had a teacher-evaluation law on the books since 2010, long before the waivers—calls for student growth on tests to be factored in as 20 percent of a teacher's overall rating, but it isn't specific about whether a district or charter school must use state or local assessments. (That's similar to the problem Washington ran into.)

In its new request, Arizona will make it clear that the state assessment must be a "significant" factor, but, like Kansas, it will leave it up to local districts and charters to decide just what significant means in terms of a percentage, until 2016. At that point, the state plans to revisit the issue, when it has additional data from new PARCC assessments.

Will the request be approved? Phillips offered a measured response. "I wouldn't say we're confident, but we are certainly hopeful," she said. "We feel that we are approaching this process with good intentions and in good faith."

And she had an interesting reflection on the process of going back-and-forth with the feds.

"When we started this journey, it was very high level," with an emphasis on big concepts such as high standards and effective teachers, Phillips said. "We are very much now into the weeds of frameworks" and other technical provisions.

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