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STATES’ PERSPECTIVES ON WAIVERS: New CEP Report Finds That States Appreciate Relief from NCLB, Express Concern About Long-Term Solutions

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“States … expressed concern that a newly reauthorized [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] may dictate a sudden shift in accountability requirements, thus disrupting the state plans currently underway,” the report notes. “Specifically, states expressed concern that such a shift in accountability policies could erode tenuous stakeholder support or possibly cost more at a time when state budgets are just starting to recover from the recession.”

States are optimistic that waivers will help ease some of the unrealistic requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and improve learning for all students, but they are concerned about what will happen to the programs and policies in their waiver plans if the law is reauthorized, according a new report from the Center on Education Policy (CEP) at George Washington University.

“States … expressed concern that a newly reauthorized [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] may dictate a sudden shift in accountability requirements, thus disrupting the state plans currently underway,” the report notes. “Specifically, states expressed concern that such a shift in accountability policies could erode tenuous stakeholder support or possibly cost more at a time when state budgets are just starting to recover from the recession.”

Because President Obama and the U.S. Congress were unable to come to an agreement to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as NCLB, the U.S. Department of Education granted states waivers from certain requirements of the law. The CEP report, States’ Perspectives on Waivers: Relief from NCLB, Concern About Long-Term Solutions, describes states’ early experiences in applying for waivers and their plans for implementing the new systems outlined in their applications. It is based on survey responses that CEP from thirty-eight states, including thirty-two states with approved waiver applications and six states whose applications were still pending as of fall 2012.1

When asked why they applied for waivers, states gave several different reasons, but the most popular response was doubt that ESEA would be reauthorized in the next year combined with districts’ and schools’ needs for flexibility in meeting some of the law’s provisions, an answer given by twenty-seven states. Twenty-five states also said that too many of their schools were inappropriately identified as needing improvement under NCLB and that the reforms described in their waiver applications will increase the capacity in which state education agencies (SEAs) assist schools and districts needing reform.

The report finds that states are generally optimistic about the extent to which they expect new waiver-related requirements for college- and career- ready standards, educator evaluation systems, and differentiated accountability systems to improve student learning, but they were less convinced that reducing state administration requirements will greatly improve achievement.

“States believe they have put together accountability plans and other supports that will improve student learning,” said Maria Ferguson, executive director of CEP. “They see this as a real opportunity to customize accountability systems so they work more effectively in their individual states.”

Although every state reported that it had already adopted policies for college- and career-ready standards before requesting a waiver or intended to do so regardless of their waiver request outcome—and either already adopted or planned to adopted policies for assessments aligned to those standards—the report finds that waivers appear to have shaped state policies and accelerated some reforms, especially in the case of policies for educator evaluations and support systems. Regardless of policy changes they expected to make, states generally did not have to make legislative changes to meet the new waiver application requirements.

When asked their perceptions about the new accountability systems they proposed in their wavier plans, twenty-two states said that the new systems will correctly identify schools in need of improvement “significantly better” than the pre-waiver requirements of NCLB. The same number of states also expects the new accountability systems to increase the capacity in which SEAs assist schools identified for improvement.

One possible issue with these accountability systems is how states plan to base accountability decisions on the performance of broader groups of students than those listed in NCLB (students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, English language learners (ELLs), etc.). As the report notes, states that receive waivers may “use fewer, more broadly defined subgroups that combine two or more NCLB statutory subgroups or that are based on recent test performance, such as the lowest-scoring 25 percent or 30 percent of students in a school or all students scoring below the proficient level.” Twenty-six states plan to use these types of combined or performance-based subgroups upon receiving a waiver while twelve do not.

The report notes that some advocacy organizations, including the Alliance for Excellent Education, said that these policies could diminish attention to the learning needs of students from traditionally lower-achieving groups. In its recent report, The Effect of ESEA Waiver Plans on High School Graduation Rate Accountability, the Alliance notes that accountability for the high school graduation rates of various student subgroups—students of color, low-income students, students with a disability, and ELLs—is weak or nonexistent in eleven states.

Most of the states surveyed said that it was “challenging” to design key aspects of the waiver accountability systems. According to the report, thirty-four states said it was “very challenging” or “somewhat challenging” to set new “annual measurable objectives,” (AMOs), which are targets for student performance in reading and mathematics. Thirty-five states said the same about determining which actions to take for schools designed as priority or focus schools—two categories of low-performing schools required by waiver guidance—or in high-performing reward schools. Similar numbers of states also faced difficulties in determining the measures of student achievement to incorporate into the accountability system, the weight each measure of student achievement should receive, and how to hold schools accountable for the achievement of subgroups of students.

The report also finds that changes in teacher and principal evaluation systems are well underway, despite resistance in some states from teachers and that states have mixed views about whether implementing various aspects of the waivers will cost more than implementing similar NCLB provisions.

The complete report is available at http://cep-dc.org/displayDocument.cfm?DocumentID=418.

1 The report counts the District of Columbia as a state.

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