Editor’s note: This blog post updates a previous item published on April 30. We have new information from Maryland and a query pending with D.C. officials.

If Virginia wants permission to opt out of the most vexing parts of the federal No Child Left Behind law, it must produce a more rigorous accountability plan of its own.

The U.S. Education Department delivered that message last month in response to Virginia’s request for relief from the 2002 law, which set a target for all students to demonstrate proficiency in math and reading by 2014.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced in the fall that he would waive portions of the law for states that outline alternative plans and agree to certain policies. Eleven states have received waivers. Virginia, Maryland and the District were among more than two dozen applicants that submitted requests in February and are awaiting a decision.

The District received a letter from the Department of Education in response to its request, but D.C. and federal officials declined to release that document last week.

In a letter dated April 17, the department told Maryland to clarify how it will ensure that all school systems implement new teacher and principal evaluations. The department also urged the state to clarify how student attendance and test participation will be included in new school ratings.

The department, in a separate letter April 17, gave Virginia a longer critique. The state had sought to replace the accountability measures mandated under federal law with a modified version of its own accreditation system.

Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said state officials are trying to figure out how to satisfy federal concerns without veering too sharply from the initial plan.

“This was an offer from Washington for states to seek flexibility — states that have rigorous standards and serious accountability programs,” Pyle said. “That of course is going to mean a less prescriptive approach to meeting federal accountability objectives.”

The U.S. Education Department pinpointed questions about Virginia’s application that echoed concerns already raised by Virginia education advocates, who argued that the commonwealth’s plan marked a retreat from one of NCLB’s most important aims: unmasking and addressing achievement gaps among groups of students, including racial and ethnic minorities, poor children, students with disabilities and those who are learning English.

The federal response to Virginia’s waiver request demonstrated “that they’re serious about the achievement of low-performing students and they intend to carry out the core promise of No Child Left Behind,” said Angela Ciolfi of JustChildren, an advocacy group associated with the Legal Aid Justice Center.

Both states received praise in addition to suggestions for improvement.

Maryland won kudos for its new rating system and efforts to prepare for a new set of national standards for math and English language arts, which have been widely adopted by states across the country. (Virginia is not among them.)

The federal agency praised Virginia’s “particularly strong” protocol for changing and upgrading the state’s Standards of Learning and said its accountability system “has the potential to be effective and easily understood” by educators, parents and the public.

Virginia has produced an outline of possible revisions and is seeking input from local superintendents. The state remains in talks with the federal government over amendments to the waiver request and will need approval from the state Board of Education before submitting those changes. The board’s next meeting is scheduled for May 24.

Here are some of the key federal reactions to waiver requests made by Virginia and Maryland.


The Virginia plan’s achievement targets are not ambitious enough.

NCLB sets a goal of 100 percent of students passing state math and reading tests. Virginia’s proposal would lower the bar to 75 percent for reading and 70 percent for math.

Those would be static targets. The federal agency urged Virginia to instead set targets that rise over time, and that either aim to cut in half the proportion of non-proficient students or reach 100 percent proficiency over the next six years.

The federal government also expressed concern about Virginia’s state graduation index, which gives schools credit for students who receive a GED or a certificate of completion instead of a standard or advanced diploma. As defined by the federal government, graduation rates include only those students who earn a diploma.

The plan does not do enough to hold school systems accountable for the performance of student subgroups.

Under NCLB, Virginia has to report on the performance of seven student subgroups based on race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic and disability status. If any one of those subgroups fails to meet achievement targets, the school is flagged as needing extra help and can be subject to a variety of sanctions.

Under Virginia’s plan, that information would continue to be reported, but it wouldn’t be used to determine which schools are successful and which need help.

Instead, a school’s annual report card would show information about how three newly defined minority student groups — “proficiency gap groups,” in the state’s lingo — are faring.

The new groups are set up so that the test scores of a student who falls into more than one traditional subgroup — a poor black student, for example — would be counted only once.

Group 1 includes all students with disabilities, students with limited English proficiency and poor children. Group 2: African American children not already in Group 1. Group 3: Latino children not already in Group 1.

The federal agency expressed concern that these new groupings would mask gaps among traditional subgroups.

Virginia needs to clarify how it will ensure that student growth is a “significant factor” in teacher and principal evaluations.

In the fall, all school systems in Virginia must start using teacher evaluation systems that they develop based on guidelines from the state Board of Education.

The guidelines recommend that student academic progress should account for 40 percent of the evaluation. It’s not clear how many school systems will follow that recommendation.


Maryland needs to strengthen parts of its school rating system.

As proposed, test participation rates are not clearly accounted for in school ratings, leading to concern that schools might be tempted to not test certain students. Federal officials are also seeking clarification of how student attendance factors into ratings.

Federal officials have asked Maryland to better explain how the state will provide help to schools that don’t meet annual achievement targets. Over the next six years, Maryland aims to cut in half the percentage of non-proficient students in math and reading — both overall and in each subgroup.

Maryland needs to clarify how it will ensure that schools implement evaluations for teachers and principals.

Seven Maryland school systems — in the city of Baltimore and in Prince George’s, St. Mary’s, Kent, Charles, Baltimore and Queen Anne’s counties — are piloting new evaluations for teachers and principals, which include student achievement as a key factor. The process calls for student growth to account for 50 percent of teacher evaluations.

The evaluations are scheduled to be used statewide beginning in the 2013-14 school year, and federal officials have asked for more details about enforcement of that timetable. The department also urged Maryland to detail how principals will be provided with training to become effective leaders.