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NCLB Waivers: More Time, New Goals, But Still: Those Tests!

As you've probably already heard, eight more states got waivers yesterday from the central tenets of the No Child Left Behind Act. (If you haven't already heard, read the post on our State EdWatch blog about it.)

Along with the states that won waivers in the first round, yesterday's news means that 19 states have proposed—and won the U.S. Department of Education's blessing for—new accountability systems and other changes that are meant to allow new and purportedly better ways of producing student achievement gains.

Whether the new systems will do that is, of course, still an open question. But something worth noting—a key driver behind the waiver program—is states' revised goals and extended testing timelines. In contrast to No Child Left Behind, whose looming 2013-14 deadline for 100-percent proficiency was making states and districts increasingly nervous, states that won waivers now have different kinds of proficiency deadlines, and a longer timeline to reach them.

It will be interesting to see how these extended timelines play out for states politically. On the one hand, they could offer the advantage of more time until the proverbial rubber meets the road. On the other, however, nearly every state in the country—barring any mass exodus from the common-assessment project—will have to answer for the results of the common assessments. Those tests, expected in 2014-15, are projected to be tougher than current tests. So states using them will have to deal with the political fallout of explaining to parents and everyone else why scores dropped significantly between 2014 and 2015. States are already grappling with how to manage that challenge.

It's worth noting that states, in their waiver applications, are not only giving themselves more time to reach proficiency goals, but they also are changing the goals they're striving for. By and large, it's not about 100-percent proficiency anymore. The plans of two of yesterday's winners, for instance, Maryland and Delaware, illustrate this. Maryland's plan is be held accountable for cutting the achievement gap in half within six years. Delaware will set new annual performance targets to cut in half the "percentage of non-proficient students" in six years.

Keep in mind that this framework comes from the Ed Department's own conception of the program. Note that Section 2-B of the application form allows states three options for setting new "annual measurable objectives":

• Option A: Set AMOs in annual equal increments toward a goal of reducing by half the percentage of students in the "all students" group and in each subgroup who are not proficient within six years.

• Option B: Set AMOs that increase in annual equal increments and result in 100 percent of students achieving proficiency no later than the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

• Option C: Use another method that is educationally sound and results in ambitious but achievable AMOs for all [districts], schools, and subgroups.

Technical issues prevented me from opening a few of the successful states' waiver applications. But I looked at the others, and not one, as far as I could see, had chosen Option B.

Changing the goals and/or pushing them down the road a bit gives states more time to get their students and teachers ready to produce good results. Or it eases off on some of the most valuable pressure that's come down the pike in years. Depending, of course, on your view.

Another hovering question in all this: What happens to states that don't get waivers? The Ed Department has said it would like all states to obtain them. But those that don't are still subject to NCLB's requirements (unless there is a very-unlikely ESEA reauthorization, of course). Depending on the final waiver count, we could have an indeterminate number of states still struggling toward the 100-percent-proficiency target by 2014, as well as bracing for the tougher common assessments only a year beyond that.

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