The states of Washington and Wisconsin will be allowed to wiggle out of No Child Left Behind's rigorous test requirements, joining two dozen other U.S. states that have already agreed to waivers that require them to adopt the Obama administration's education agenda instead, the U.S. Education Department will announce today.
The new waivers mean more than half the states have now won exemptions from the 2002 law, a signature initiative of George W. Bush's presidency that required standardized testing of students and a system of punishments based on the test scores.
While advocates credit the law for exposing test score gaps between different groups of students, even the law's original cheerleaders acknowledge its "failing" schools label is too broad, the tutoring remedies it mandates rarely boost student achievement, and the 2014 goal that 100 percent of U.S. students be deemed "proficient" in science and math is unrealistic.
The law expired in 2007. Despite a few attempts, Congress has failed to rewrite it. After Congress missed President Barack Obama's fall deadline for overhauling the law, the administration began offering states relief waivers from the law's toughest parts. In exchange for the waivers, states had to agree to parts of the Obama education agenda, which includes a "college- and career-ready" standards and grading teachers, in part, in accordance with students' standardized test scores. And instead of subjecting all schools to potential punishments, only 15 percent of each state's lowest-performing schools would be affected.
The waiver process has resulted in a flurry of criticism from Republicans, who say the administration is abusing its power and exerting too strong a federal role in education.
More recently, though, a survey by consulting firm Whiteboard Advisors revealed that the controversy surrounding the process is broader. Late last month, the "education influentials" who responded to Whiteboard's survey -- questions answered anonymously by White House, Education Department and congressional staffers -- showed limited confidence in the waiver process. "The waivers are a complete disaster, and will weaken accountability in ways that will be felt for years, if not decades," one respondent complained. "The Washington ed policy world has completely looked the other way while all this has happened -- largely because they are mostly Democrats who could not bring themselves to oppose Obama/[U.S. Secretary of Education Arne] Duncan."
Minnesota is already transitioning to new school accountability systems. When Minnesota uploaded its new education database last month, the number of schools identified as needing improvement dropped suddenly to 127 from 1,056 the previous year, wrote Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, in the Minneapolis Star Tribune last month. "Either a thousand elementary, middle and high schools suddenly and collectively erased stubborn achievement gaps and radically upped test scores in the last 12 months, or someone is getting cute with the numbers," Weaver wrote. The new system grades schools for students' improvement, not competence -- a switch advocates say is fairer to teachers. But Weaver asserted that the new method "makes it appear that Minnesota schools are doing better than they actually are."
Still, Duncan lauded the addition of Wisconsin and Washington. “It is a remarkable milestone that in only five months, more than half of the states in the country have adopted state-developed, next-generation education reforms to improve student learning and classroom instruction, while ensuring that resources are targeted to the students that need them most,” Duncan said in a statement.
Washington's waiver is conditioned on the state finalizing its teacher and principal evaluations, in addition to crafting its school accountability system. Before the state can fully get out of the law, the U.S. Education Department will have to approve those two facets. Until then, the state will revise its performance targets, and instead of looking to hit absolute targets, will seek to halve the percentage of students who aren't proficient within six years.
The 26 states that have now received permission to work around No Child Left Behind include Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. In addition, six states that did not complete the entire waiver process -- and one whose application was rejected -- got a one-year freeze on the rising targets for standardized test scores: Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine and West Virginia. The applications of 10 states and Washington, D.C., are still being reviewed.
12:40 p.m.: This article has been updated to include Duncan's letters to Wisconsin and Washington regarding their exemptions.