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NCLB Waivers: Implications for Testing, Standards Implementation

The big education news out of Washington yesterday was that 10 states have been awarded waivers of key accountability provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act. This action by the U.S. Department of Education holds some potentially important implications for teaching and learning, as it essentially opens the door for states to rethink their priorities and approaches in evaluating schools (and districts). And accountability systems create a lot of pressure to influence what gets taught—and how—in the classroom.

In fact, seven of the 10 states that won a first-round waiver from the department proposed to include tests in subjects beyond reading and mathematics as part of their reconfigured accountability systems. I did a quick analysis of this in a previous blog post. The most popular was to include science assessments, but social studies and writing also were included in some cases. Those plans raise the question of whether the waivers might reverse the narrowing of the curriculum many educators and experts believe has been an outgrowth of the No Child Left Behind Act.

In addition, as a condition for getting waivers, states had to make a number of commitments, including to adopt college-and career-ready standards (for most states, this means the Common Core State Standards) and aligned assessments (for most, joining one of the two state consortia working on common exams). Many states had to revise their initial waiver proposals to win approval by spelling out in more detail how they would ensure the standards are carried out, from supporting teachers to specifically indicating how they would help English-language learners and students with disabilities.

The 10 states to win waivers are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. (Waivers for Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma were conditional, meaning they still must make improvements to their plans.) New Mexico was turned down, but federal officials said they are confident the state could still secure one with improvements to its application.

For the big picture on the waivers, check out this detailed EdWeek story.

A lot of the revised state waiver plans pay more attention to providing professional development to teachers in the common standards, as well as addressing how English-language learners and students with disabilities will reach the new standards. For a helpful analysis, check out Lesli Maxwell's post over at Learning the Language.

In describing the waiver process, the Education Department made clear that states must do more than simply adopt high standards. The waiver applications would be judged in part on states' plans to provide professional development and high-quality instructional materials for the new standards, among other things.

In a recent EdWeek story, my co-blogger Catherine Gewertz detailed what the 11 first-round applicants for NCLB waivers were planning to do. As she noted, many proposed large-scale efforts to train their educators in the new academic standards, create or oversee development of new instructional resources, and redesign their testing systems.

You can read for yourself what states are planning, as well as how those plans have been revised at this waiver page from the Education Department. For a quick and easy sense of what states agreed to change to win a waiver, click on the "Improvements to XX's Request" (fill in the blank with a particular state). The changes appear mainly to involve elaborating on what states have done and plan to do to help with implementing the common standards.

Here's a quick sampling from four states:

Colorado: The state described in more detail its plans to ensure that students with disabilities and English-language learners have access to rigorous content aligned with college-and career-ready standards, including how it will work with teachers to help them.

Georgia: Described in more detail the professional-development activities it has provided for principals on the implementation of the common standards.

Indiana: Demonstrated the outreach it has already conducted and that it will conduct with the common standards. For example, it described a Learning Connection portal, which provides access to resources and a place to discuss topics in weekly online forums. The state also described steps it's taking to ensure that English-learners and students with disabilities will be able to achieve college-and career-ready standards and "fully participate in aligned assessments."

New Jersey: Provided additional information on professional-development sessions that will occur over the coming year to help teachers transition to the common standards, including sessions focused on English-learners and students with disabilities. New Jersey also elaborated on its plans to collaborate with institutions of higher education to review the rigor of current end-of-course high school assessments.

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