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Nearly Half of States Opted to Hit Accountability Snooze Button

Test scores from new Common Core State Standards assessments are just beginning to trickle in. But in nearly half of the states, the results won't have an effect on school ratings on state accountability systems, at least not for school year that just ended.

Here's why: Last year, the U.S. Department of Education gave states that are transitioning to new tests the option to "pause" state-level accountability during the 2014-15 school year, when the exams were coming online. The idea was to give schools some breathing room as they adjust to new tests and more rigorous standards.

The option was really popular—24 states and the District of Columbia took the department up on it. And everyone has been approved, except for Colorado (which is still waiting for the greenlight on its No Child Left Behind Act waiver renewal).

Receiving the option are: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. (A handful of those states don't have waivers.)

The change means that a school that had a high rating last year, but maybe didn't perform so well on new assessments, won't necessarily have to worry about suddenly dropping from say, an "A" to a "D."

But "the pause" is not a total and complete pass from all accountability. For instance, states with waivers from the NCLB law (that's 42 states and the District of Columbia) will still have to identify new "priority schools" (the wonky waiver name given to the absolute lowest performing) and "focus schools" (other struggling schools), if they were scheduled to do so this year. (It's complicated and wonky, but waiver states have different timelines for making these designations. Some do it every year, some do it less frequently than that.)  

And states will still have to figure out a way to set achievement targets, even though they may be retroactive, which is just about as confusing as it sounds and has made some state officials pretty cranky.

Here's the interesting thing about the pause: There's been very little chatter about it, and it seems almost universally accepted as something the department and states simply had to do in the wake of all the changes ushered in by the waivers and common-core standards. But it's easy to imagine that it would have sparked a huge outcry and controversy if the department had tried it, say, at the beginning of the Obama administration, when NCLB wasn't quite so outdated. The fact that everyone has been so quiet about it and accepting is just one more sign that the federal role in accountability is on the wane, no matter what happens with NCLB reauthorization this fall.

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