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Seven States Plus D.C. Approved for NCLB Waiver Renewals

UPDATED

Eight waiver recipients—Georgia, Hawaii, Nevada, New York, Missouri, Kansas, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia—will be able to hang onto their flexibility from some of the most onerous mandates of the No Child Left Act for at least three more years, The U.S Department of Education said Tuesday. 

That would take the flexibility beyond the end of the Obama administration's tenure. If the NCLB law hasn't been updated by that point, it's an open question whether the next administration—Democratic or Republican—will keep the waivers in place, go back to NCLB as written, or come up with its own plan for accountability.

But for now, the Obama waivers are the only game in town, so every one of the 42 waiver states (plus D.C.) with a waiver has applied for renewal. 

States that generally stuck to their guns on teacher evaluation were allowed to apply under a fast-track process and hang onto their waivers for a longer period, up to four years. That list includes Kentucky, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Virginia.  (Those states found about their renewals earlier this spring.) 

And one of the states approved Tuesday—New York—was given a longer, four-year extension, in part because it stayed on track with its initial plan for teacher evaluation.

Waivers were supposed to go to states that were willing to embrace the department's vision on education redesign in areas like teacher evaluation through student outcomes and dramatic school turnarounds. 

But the renewals are not a sign that these states have necessarily stayed the Obama administration's course over the last several years. New York, for instance, has a lot of parents seeking to opt their children out of state tests. It's unclear if Missouri will stick with the Common Core State Standards and what test it will use to assess its students. And Nevada had major technical failures in administering Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia tests aligned to the standards.

And four of the states asked for—and got—the chance to hit the "pause" button on school ratings during the 2014-15 school year, as students transition to new assessments meant to measure towards higher standards. Those states are: the District of Columbia, Kansas, Nevada, and West Virginia. 

Saying No

And, even though their requests were approved, some of these states did not get their way on some pretty big—but commonly sought—shifts when it comes to testing and accountability.

For example, New York wanted flexibility on testing English-language learners—a popular ask now that Florida was allowed to make big changes when it comes to testing ELLs.

New York wanted to exempt ELLs' scores on reading tests from being used for accountability purposes, if the students have been in the country for less than two years (that's a step further from what Florida got). Instead, the state wanted to develop a performance index for students who are new arrivals, and give them the state's English language proficiency test for accountability purposes. The department said no. (Georgia also has a request on testing of ELLs pending.)

And Kansas was initially hoping to allow a handful of its districts to try out local tests in lieu of the state assessment (along the lines of what New Hampshire has been approved for).

But the feds told Kansas they would need to do some deep thinking about how to equate these local tests with state exams—something New Hampshire promised to do. So Kansas opted to pursue the local waiver separately. 

It's worth noting that half of these waiver recipients—D.C., New York, Georgia, and Hawaii—were all winners of the department's Race to the Top competition, which means they got a jump on implementing policies such as teacher evaluations tied to student outcomes and tests aligned to higher standards that are a big piece of the waivers.

The department press release on the announcement celebrated some policy changes that have come about in these states under waivers. For instance, Missouri has been able to help its lowest-performing schools better analyze data. And Nevada has developed a statewide framework for educator evaluations. 

UPDATE: 

The U.S. Department of Education may have given seven states and the District of Columbia the green light on keeping their waivers—but some of those requests come with an asterisk (or "conditions" in waiver lingo.) 

And this time around the department needs to see more from  the District of Columbia, Kansas, Missouri, Nevada, and New York. (Hawaii, Georgia, and West Virginia had no conditions.)  

For instance, Missouri and Nevada will need to fill the department on their transition to new state tests, in light of changes and technical problems. Nevada will need to prove it is working with "stakeholders" (like unions and the civil rights community) to develop its policies.

And Missouri will also need to explain how student data will be used to inform teacher personnel decisions by the 2016-17 school year. Kansas too, has to work on evaluations The District of Columbia will have to make sure that schools with big, persistent achievement gaps can't get special recognition as "reward" schools.

New York and the District of Columbia also have work to do when it comes to supporting schools with high drop-out rates or big achievement gaps (called "focus" schools in waiver lingo), and in figuring out when schools can shed the "focus" label. 



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