Tennessee seeks waiver from NCLB’s accountability standards

The Associated Press (AP) reports in Education Week that Gov. Bill Haslam has announced that Tennessee is seeking a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to use its revamped education standards to measure schools instead of those mandated by No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). According to the governor and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, the federal standards no longer serve the interest of education reform in Tennessee.

Recent changes made by the state, such as a measure signed into law in 2011 that would make it tougher for teachers to obtain and keep tenure, allowed the state to win $500 million in the national Race to the Top education grant competition. “We’re making significant progress in education, and we believe that since we lead the country in the amount of data we collect, and are making a lot of progress with implementing meaningful reforms, that we are capable of using what we’ve learned from No Child Left Behind to measure ourselves in a rigorous way,” Haslam said.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has warned that 82% of U.S. schools could be labeled failures next year if the federal regulations aren’t changed. Haslam also released results that show only about half of Tennessee schools made “annual yearly progress” (AYP) under NCLB. Preliminary results from the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program showed math scores in third- through eighth-grade improved by 7% this year over last year and reading scores improved by 3.7%. In 18 school systems, student scores improved by 20% percent or more.

Despite the improvement, the state is only 41% proficient in math for those grades, and 48.5% in reading. Under NCLB guidelines, the state is required to be 60%  proficient in math next year, 66%  in reading, and 100% in both subjects by 2014.

Haslam noted  that even though many schools didn’t meet the federal guidelines, they still made improvement. “Our accountability system should ensure that local districts are empowered to manage their schools against ambitious goals,” he said. “In short we need to get away from punitive mandates, particularly for schools in districts that are really making progress, as most of our schools are.”

Source: Education Week, 7/29/11, By AP

[Editor's Note: Meanwhile, on July 29, 2011, Lori Higgins of the Detroit Free Press reported that the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) is also asking ED to waive NCLB's rules that require 100% of students be proficient on state exams by 2014 for 10 years. MDE basis its waiver request on the state's increased standard for passage of state exams, making it tougher for students to be considered proficient.

Under a plan the State Board of Education approved earlier this year, Michigan will raise what are called cut scores, the cutoff point for how well a student needs to perform to pass the standardized tests. The new plan will make the cutoff consistent with the skills students need for college and careers. Michigan’s cutoff had been based on whether students show a basic understanding of the material.

While Tennessee and Michigan go the route of requesting waivers, other states have taken a hard stance. On July 29, 2011, AP reported in the Daily Journal that the Idaho State Board of Education (IBOE) signed off on Idaho's plan to reject the latest requirements for determining school progress under NCLB. According to AP, other states have balked at NCLB's requirements, saying they set unrealistic benchmarks for schools. Idaho's state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna says an additional 150 schools in Idaho would move into the "needs improvement" category if the benchmarks are increased.  On August 1, 2011, Edweek's Politics K-12 blog reported that Idaho had received its waiver from the Department, while other states wait to hear.

In July 2011 Legal Clips carried a summary of an artcle in the Argus Leader reportingthat South Dakota Education Secretary Melody Schopp had announced  that the state would defy NCLB by freezing annual Dakota STEP performance targets at their 2009-10 levels. The article noted that the number of schools that fail to make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) was projected to grow dramatically in the next two years as the state raises its proficiency targets toward a 2014 goal. Schopp said the state Department of Education doesn't have the manpower to intervene in so many schools, so they will stop raising proficiency targets.

In March 2011, Legal Clips summarized an AP news story in the Mercury News reporting that President Barack Obama believes students should take fewer standardized tests and school performance should be measured in other ways.]

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