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Arne Duncan Gives Five States 'Early Bird' Renewal of NCLB Waivers

UPDATED

The five states that applied early—under a special, fast-track process—for renewal of their No Child Left Behind Act waivers have all gotten approved by the U.S. Department of Education Tuesday.

That means that Kentucky, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Mexico, and Virginia will get to keep their waivers for another four years, to through the 2018-19 school year, meaning beyond the end of the Obama administration. The fast track renewal was intended, as a reward of sorts, for states that remained on track with their original waiver plans in the tricky area of teacher evaluation.

(For you waiver geeks, Minnesota wasn't in the initial batch of states tapped for the very special, expedited, and longer waiver renewal, intended for states that stayed on track with teacher evaluations. And it was not happy about being excluded. But apparently Minnesota joined the group at some point. I'm sure there's a great "inside the bureaucracy" story there.)

For the most part, the states were seeking relatively modest changes to their original proposals. For instance, Kentucky wants to tweak its accountability system to give schools additional credit for reducing the number of students scoring at the "novice" (lowest) level on state tests, and for moving students into a higher level. On the other hand, schools would lose points if students slip from a higher level into "novice" or "apprentice" (second-lowest) level.

Meanwhile, New Mexico's waiver request discusses the difficulty in ensuring schools climb out of "priority" status, which is reserved for the lowest-performing schools that need the most-intensive interventions. And North Carolina included language in its application updating the Education Department on the state's search for a new assessment. Minnesota is seeking to lower the number of "subgroup" students in a school that count for accountability purposes to 20 from 40. (One quick clarification. That subgroup count isn't new to Minnesota's waiver renewal. It was part Minnesota's waiver extension last year. So the state is already doing this.) 

Virginia sought to tweak its teacher-evaluation system to give educators more timely information about their students' performance. The new system will show how individual students progress through different levels of achievement, which Steven Staples, Virginia's state chief, said during a call with reporters is a "truer measure" of teacher effectiveness.

Who's applying for renewal? Nearly every state with a waiver—that's 42, plus the District of Columbia—wants to keep the flexibility. And so do a cadre of California districts, known collectively as the CORE districts. The CORE waiver is the only district waiver and the only one currently on high risk status. Plus, Nebraska is applying for a waiver for the first time, although it's unclear if the state's teacher evaluation system will pass federal muster. More from the Omaha World-Herald

Some exceptions: Louisiana is still undecided. UPDATE: Louisiana will apply for a renewal, a department spokesman said. The state will need an extension from the department on its renewal application, however.

And Idaho wants extra time to make up its mind about applying. Meanwhile, Georgia and Utah may file for only a one-year extension, rather than the maximum three years available to most states. What's more, Idaho, Georgia, and Louisiana are all seeking extensions on their renewal applications, meaning they could turn them in later this spring.

Why do waiver renewals even matter? The process may well be the Obama administration's last, best chance to put its stamp on the No Child Left Behind Act before leaving office in 2017. It's unclear whether the next president—Republican or Democrat—will continue with the administration's waiver scheme.  

But even if the waivers don't stay in place very much longer, they could inform state accountability systems for years to come, state chiefs from Minnesota, New Mexico, and Virginia told reporters.

"We don't want to move the goal posts" for students and teachers, said Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota's education commissioner.

UPDATE: Some of these waiver renewals announced Tuesday come with caveats. For instance, Virginia's approval is contingent on the state's making changes to its exit criteria for "focus schools" (those flagged as having big achievement gaps or other problems but which aren't the absolute worst schools in the state).

And Kentucky must show that schools can't get the highest rating on its accountability system if they have big achievement gaps. (That's something the Education Trust, a research and advocacy organization flagged the Bluegrass State for in a report released last year.) It also must show that it's identified the right number of "priority schools" (the worst schools in the state, subject to serious interventions). And it must clear up the timeline for intervening in "focus" schools.

North Carolina also must ensure that its highest-rated schools don't have big gaps. And it has to update its plans for holding schools to the 95 percent participation threshold in the NCLB law, which says that if 95 percent of students at a particular school don't take state exams, the school could face sanctions. (Part of the Tar Heel state's problem with the 95 percent threshold, according to its waiver application? The state uses the ACT as one of its tests for accountability, which is only given on limited days.)

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