The Obama administration on Friday granted Virginia and four other states relief from the most burdensome provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The news means that schools in a total of two dozen states — including Maryland, which received a waiver in May — will no longer face sanctions if they fail to ensure that all students are proficient in math and reading by 2014.
“We would have loved to have got this done by rewriting NCLB, fixing what is wrong with the law while preserving what is right,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. But with no consensus in sight on Capitol Hill, he said, “we simply felt children couldn’t wait any longer.”
Duncan announced last fall that he would grant waivers from portions of the Bush-era education law, which an increasing number of critics say is unreasonable, unworkable and overly punitive. In exchange, states were required to outline alternative accountability plans and agree to certain policies.
Besides Virginia, federal officials on Friday granted waivers to Utah, Arkansas, Missouri and South Dakota. Similar requests from 12 additional states and the District are still under review and may be granted in coming weeks, Duncan said. Last week, federal officials turned down Iowa’s request.
Patricia I. Wright, Virginia’s state superintendent, said the waiver from No Child Left Behind provisions was “a long time coming and very much appreciated.”
When Virginia first submitted its waiver application in February, critics said the state was attempting to retreat from a key aim of the decade-old education law: unmasking and addressing large achievement gaps among groups of students, including racial and ethnic minorities, poor children, students with disabilities and those who are learning English.
Federal officials apparently shared some of those concerns and required significant changes to Virginia’s proposal before it was approved.
“Virginia’s come a long way,” Duncan said Friday.
Virginia initially proposed a set of static student-achievement targets. During negotiations, state officials agreed to goals that will rise annually, eventually cutting the math and reading failure rates in half over the next six years. In addition, Virginia toughened its expectations for graduation rates.
The state also agreed to require that school systems base at least 40 percent of teachers’ and principals’ evaluations on students’ academic performance.
Wright cautioned that while the changes liberate schools from the expectation that 100 percent of students will pass standardized tests, the new system won’t be simpler. Schools’ annual report cards have a new generation of educational jargon that will take some time to get used to.
“Adequate yearly progress” will be replaced with “annual measurable objectives,” for example. The performance of traditional student subgroups will still be reported, but so will the achievement of three new “proficiency gap groups,” including one that combines students with disabilities, English language learners and those who are economically disadvantaged.
The performance of those gap groups will be used to distinguish the bottom 15 percent of schools — which will get dramatic interventions, such as hiring a new principal or replacing faculty — from other schools, which will have more latitude in figuring out how to improve.
“We have a huge communications challenge to make sure that the parents and the public understand what it is we’re reporting,” Wright said.
Virginia’s waiver will have an immediate, concrete impact for the relatively small number of students who had exercised their right, under No Child Left Behind, to receive private tutoring or transfer from struggling high-poverty schools.
In Fairfax County, the state’s largest school system, fewer than 200 students chose the transfer option last year. They will be allowed to continue in their choice school, but they’ll no longer receive bus transportation — which will force some to switch to their base schools.
“It’s frustrating,” said Elise Maygren of Fort Belvoir, whose son, a rising kindergartner, will have to attend his base school instead of joining his older sister at a choice school she transferred to last year. “I’m just sad that they don’t look at the circumstances of the families that are affected,” Maygren said.
Jack Dale, Fairfax’s school superintendent, called the waiver a “step in the right direction” that will help educators identify and focus on schools that are truly struggling.
Under No Child Left Behind, an increasing number of schools across Virginia and the nation have failed to meet achievement targets. About half of the 200 schools in Fairfax did not meet performance targets in 2010-11, the latest year for which data are available.
“It was just kind of silly to be calling those schools ‘failing’ when in fact they’re not,” Dale said. “No Child Left Behind had become less and less meaningful, because the standards were unrealistic.”