The U.S. Department of Education has rejected Virginia's first request for a waiver from part of the No Child Left Behind law, which has strict testing requirements to determine whether students from all economic, ethnic and other groups are performing up to par.
The rebuff arrived just days after U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings convened a meeting of the nation's top state school officials at Mount Vernon to promise that there would be new flexibility for states that "show results and follow the principles" of the federal law.
In her speech last week, Spellings added, however, that states "looking for loopholes to simply take the federal funds, ignore the intent of the law and have minimal results to show for their millions of federal dollars" would be disappointed.
Virginia educators, who have argued that the state's standardized testing program fulfills the law's intent, have asked to be exempt from several provisions of the law and have been waiting since January for formal responses.
Virginia's schools superintendent, Jo Lynne DeMary, said she was deluged with questions from state lawmakers and local educators about Spellings's speech and what it portended for Virginia's requests. Then she got the rejection letter.
"I think it certainly called to mind what was the purpose of last week and was it as open as it seemed, in terms of looking at what would make [the law] work in every state," she said.
Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, said the denial "should not be taken as a statement as to whether the state is a model in implementing the law." She said Virginia's other requests remain under consideration.
"We're still exchanging information. We're still talking," she said. "We need to consider their requests in the context of the secretary's policy announcement last week in terms of added flexibility for the states."
Virginia had sought permission to skip reading and writing tests for immigrant kindergartners and first-graders. The law requires that states annually test the language proficiency of children who are learning English.
Testing such young children while they are learning English is extremely time-consuming, leaving less time to improve their skills, said Carol Lisi, director of English as a Second Language in Alexandria.
"From an instructional point of view, the data is not going to be useful enough to us to justify the time the testing takes," she said.
Lisi also said the requirement sets a double standard, because native English speakers are not given standardized tests until third grade.
But in a letter to state officials last week, Assistant Secretary of Education Raymond Simon wrote that testing immigrants is "necessary to promote the English language acquisition and academic achievement of English language learners at all grade levels" and that Virginia could not be exempted from the tests, even for young children.
The law calls for students to be tested in math and reading in the third through eighth grades and once in high school, and it requires schools to show annual progress in test scores. Improving the education of minority and low-income students, students with disabilities and students with limited English skills are among the law's goals.
Virginia is awaiting decisions on 10 waiver requests. One would allow educators, when measuring school performance, to include passing scores of students who retake tests. Another would shift the order of remedies applied to Title I schools -- those that have a high percentage of low-income students and receive federal funds to enhance programs -- when their performance is substandard. Virginia wants permission to provide tutoring to students before giving them the option of switching schools.
DeMary said the federal government's responses to the remaining requests will help her decide whether the announcement was "a sincere effort to reach out to states to make this work" or "a hastily pulled-together meeting that was for some other reason."