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Waiverless Oklahoma Navigates Tough Transition Back to NCLB

Back in August, Oklahoma became the second state to lose its waiver from key provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, and accountability in that state has been very unsettled ever since.

There could be even more of a shake-up coming Thursday, when the Oklahoma State Board of Regents is expected to settle the question of whether the state's current standards are challenging enough to get students ready for higher education and the workforce—a question that's critical to whether Oklahoma can regain its flexibility from the NCLB law anytime soon.

Some quick background: The Sooner State was one of the first to ditch the Common Core State Standards. It hasn't had time yet to develop and adopt new standards to replace them. Instead, the state went back to its old, pre-common-core standards, while it started a process of developing new expectations for students.

This matters because in order to get a waiver from the mandates of the NCLB law, states have to embrace standards that will prepare students for postsecondary education or the workplace. Common core counts, but states can also opt to have their institutions of higher education certify that their own standards are rigorous enough to get students ready for college and careers. (Virginia, for instance, went the do-your-own-thing-and-get-the-OK-from-higher-ed route.)

But Oklahoma's post-secondary institutions haven't yet decided whether the state's pre-common-core standards—which have gotten a lot of criticism from Janet Barresi, the current state chief—are sufficiently rigorous. That's what cost the state its waiver back in August.

Two months later, it appears that Oklahoma's transition back to NCLB has been anything but smooth.

"Right now we have more questions than we do answers from the school level," said Shawn Hime, the executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

For one thing, the state department of education hasn't told schools where they fall on NCLB's timetable of sanctions. The NCLB law calls for schools that don't meet achievement targets—known as adequate yearly progress, or AYP—for two years in a row to offer students the chance to transfer to a better-performing school in the district. After three years of missing AYP, schools must offer free tutoring. Continued failure can result in more serious interventions, including governance changes, like a state takeover. 

In her letter revoking Oklahoma's waiver, Deb Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, gave Oklahoma schools the some flexibility on tutoring and choice, saying those interventions didn't need to be fully implemented until the 2015-16 school year. But schools still aren't clear as to whether they need to set aside 20 percent of their Title I funds for those purposes.

And it's not clear if the Oklahoma Department of Education has the capacity to figure out which schools are due for which sanctions. In fact, Barresi said she'd have to add 25 or 30 new staff members, and spend an additional $6 million over two years just to get the analysis done.

"It has been several years since Oklahoma was required to calculate AYP, so moving toward that has been a real challenge. It will be tough, but we hope the calculations will be complete by year's end," Phil Bacharach, a spokesman for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, said in an email.

Complicating an already complicated situation: If Oklahoma's higher education institutions say Thursday that the state's standards pass muster, Oklahoma could technically reapply for its waiver, although the flexibility wouldn't kick in until the 2015-16 school year, according to Bacharach.

"If the Regents for Higher Education find that the current standards are college- and career-ready, it is our understanding that Oklahoma could seek a waiver for the 2015-16 school year. The waiver would not be for this year," he said.

But he's not 100 percent sure the standards will clear the bar. "The scenario is very much hypothetical. The state's college-remediation rate has hovered around 40 percent under [the current] academic standards," Bacharach said.

There's a political dimension here, too. Barresi lost her primary race in her bid for re-election, and so there will be a new state chief in place early next year. Himes is hoping that person would try to reapply to get the waiver reinstated this school year.

"Our hope would be that if our current standards are deemed to be in college- and career-ready, we would apply for the waiver right away," he said. "The only reason it was revoked was because of the college-and-career-ready standards."

Meanwhile, Oklahoma also is in turmoil over selecting new tests. More from my colleague, Sean Cavanagh, here

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