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Government, Politics & Issues

Seeking school testing waiver, Missouri hopes to learn from others

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 16, 2012 - With the first 10 states winning waivers from Washington from the mandates of No Child Left Behind, Missouri is studying their applications and tweaking its own before submitting it to the Department of Education later this month.

The goal of the whole process, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Thursday, is to let states gain flexibility in how they test students in exchange for promises of reform.

"We're talking about major change," he told reporters on a conference call, discussing the states that won the first round of waivers.

"Every single year another class of students leaves the system. Approximately 1 million students drop out, and hundreds of thousands more go to college and have to take remedial classes. This is all morally unacceptable, and our economy can't sustain this. We must get better, and we must get better faster. These states are ahead of the pack."

Missouri, which has been working on its waiver application for the past few months, hopes to join that group of successful states announced Thursday: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Missouri's application has gone through three drafts so far, with more comment being sought before the state Board of Education votes on the issue at its meeting Feb. 21. new material starts here That had been the deadline for states to submit their application for the second round of waivers, but the deadline has been extended by a week to Feb. 28. On Thursday, education officials released a comparison of current Missouri accreditation regulations and the requirements of No Child Left Behind. end new material

Michele Clark, spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the whole thrust of the state's move toward a waiver is to make sure that Missouri schools are judged by standards that make the most sense for the state and are not designed to fit a national model.

Chris Nicastro, the state's commissioner of education, added in a statement:

"We are pleased to see the U.S. Department of Education moving forward in approving nearly all the states that applied in the first round. Our application will continue to be revised based on statewide feedback from the field and from other states' applications, as appropriate.  We are focusing on developing Missouri's accountability system that serves to meet federal requirements."

Information on the state's waiver process, including a copy of the third draft of the application, is available here. Information on the federal Department of Education's waiver process is available here.

As spelled out by Washington, Missouri's application is organized around three basic principles:

  • Expectations for all students to graduate ready for college or a career
  • Accountability and support from the state to bolster student achievement
  • Support for effective leadership and instruction

In version three, attention has focused on the second requirement, for accountability and support to make sure all students are learning. That was the original goal of No Child Left Behind, with the benchmark for students to score proficient or above on state tests rising gradually each year until it would hit 100 percent by 2014.
But it soon became clear that such a goal was unrealistic, and instead of encouraging students and schools to do better, it often had the opposite effect by branding some schools as failing that clearly did not deserve such a label.

In its application, Missouri stresses the effort to align its testing measures with the state's Top 10 by 20 goal of ranking among the top 10 states in education nationwide by the year 2020. It also emphasized the state's long history of measuring achievement by school districts as part of the Missouri School Improvement Plan.

But, the application says, implementing both the state plan and the federal No Child Left Behind mandates "has generated confusion for school districts and the public, especially when reports from each system produce conflicting results. Since district and school improvement plans are informed by these state and federal reports, differing determinations result in disjointed improvement interventions and duplication of effort.

"Additionally, far too many schools and districts are being identified under NCLB as in need of improvement, which does not allow the state to best distinguish between those most needing assistance and intervention. The requirements under NCLB have declined into an administrative and fiscal burden, masking their intended purpose of driving improved student achievement and school performance, closing achievement gaps and increasing the quality of instruction for students."

At the White House Thursday, President Barack Obama made the point this way:

"Closing the achievement gap, that's a good goal. That's the right goal. We've got to stay focused on those goals. But we've got to do it in a way that doesn't force teachers to teach to the test or encourage schools to lower their standards to avoid being labeled as failures. That doesn't help anybody. It certainly doesn't help our children in the classroom."

In their conference call, Duncan and Cecilia Munoz, director of the Obama administration's Domestic Policy Council, made a similar point. Duncan said that the states that are most successful seeking federal waivers are developing their own accountability systems that address local needs.

"They are rewarding schools at the top and schools making significant gains," he said. "Under No Child Left Behind, this simply didn't happen. The only reward for success was that you weren't labeled a failure."

Munoz said that the administration has not retreated from the overall goals of No Child Left Behind but wants to leave behind what she called a flawed vehicle trying to reach those goals, one that she said is "rigid, with shifting goals and low expectations."

Noting that the federal education law should have been reauthorized five years ago, Munoz added:

"We can't wait any longer for Congress to act. Students can't wait. Teachers can't wait. The future of our economy can't wait."

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