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Some Waiver States May Be Able to Pause Accountability Systems This Year

States that are seeking to renew their No Child Left Behind waivers and are in the midst of making the transition to new "college-and-career-ready" assessments can ask for permission to hit the pause button on their school ratings through next school year, under new guidelines released this week by the U.S. Department of Education.

That wonky sentence means, essentially, that schools in waiver states that are rolling out brand new assessments this school year may not have to worry so much about federal consequences stemming from the tests that students are set to take this spring.

The schools could remain frozen in place, accountability-wise, for one school year. That means schools could bomb the new tests and wouldn't have to worry about being bumped down into "priority" or "focus" status—the two waiver categories for lower performing schools. (There are still plenty of other things to worry about, of course, including parent and public perception and any state-driven sanctions or interventions.)

The pause option was tucked into a list of frequently-asked-questions about waiver renewals published by the department on Monday.

It's important to note that this flexibility doesn't seem to have been automatically extended to each and every waiver state. States that want to "pause" their rating systems will have to let the department know that in their renewal applications, and explain their reasoning.

Plus, not every waiver state would even be eligible—the option only applies only to states that are actually rolling out new tests this school year. (A number of waiver states, including New York and Kentucky, aren't going to be using new tests.)  

The guidance doesn't come out of nowhere.

The Education Department has already allowed some states to hit the snooze button on accountability during the transition to new college-and-career-ready assessments through "double-testing" waivers. Those allowed schools that were piloting new college-and-career ready assessments in the 2013-14 school year to use only one test, for some or even all of their schools. Some states got double-testing waivers for all their students—including California, which doesn't even have an NCLB waiver.

It's unclear if states and schools who have already gotten the "double-testing" waiver will be eligible for this flexibility. If so, that could amount to a two-year pause in accountability for some.

The move doesn't exactly come as a surprise, said Anne Hyslop, a senior policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting organization in Washington and an expert on NCLB waivers. She noted that the department stayed mum when states wrote "long, drawn-out" common core transition plans, and that it's already allowed for some accountability suspension, through the double-testing waiver.

But she said she's hoping the department sticks to its word and doesn't let states that aren't trying out new assessments this year in on the accountability pause.

"This kind of flexibility isn't going to be appropriate for all states," she said.

So what else is in the wonky FAQ accompanying the assessment guidance?

The department is offering states an incentive—$1 million a year—to participate in an evaluation that would help determine whether waivers actually worked when it comes to moving the needle on student achievement. And it seems possible that states could even get to keep their waivers for a longer time period—four years—if they participate in the evaluation.

A state may "request and receive approval of its ESEA flexibility renewal request for a fourth year, through the 2018-2019 school year, if a funded evaluation would benefit from an additional year of implementation," wrote Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in a letter to states highlighting key parts of the frequently asked questions.

Of course, the Obama administration will be long gone by 2018-19, and who knows if the next president will continue with the waivers, much less the evaluations. It would have been better if the department had started this initiative earlier, Hyslop said. Still, this is "better late than never."  

There is also greater detail on how states can apply for the latest "waiver waiver" which would allow states to make sure that low-performing schools singled out for interventions under the waivers (aka "priority"—the 5 percent lowest performing schools in the state and "focus" schools—another 10 percent of foundering schools) can get some federal Title I money for turnaround work.

Notably, there won't be peer reviewers for the waiver renewals. All of the work of assessing state applications will fall to department staff.

The guidance is also notable for what's not there: Any sort of definition of "achievement gap." Why does that matter? In its waiver renewal guidance, released last month, the department told states they needed to ensure schools with big achievement gaps can't get the highest rating possible on their state accountability system. That seemed to be a direct response to a report put out earlier this month by the Education Trust which looked at how states were identifying schools with significant achievement gaps in their accountability systems.

But there's nothing in the initial waiver renewal guidance, or in this new list of frequently asked questions that would give states any indication of what exactly a big achievement gap even is. And no clear definition means that the new requirement may end up being essentially toothless.

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