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TO WAIVE OR NOT TO WAIVE: Oklahoma Loses ESEA Waiver as U.S. Department of Education Grants Waiver Extensions to Twenty-Three Other States, Including Indiana

“To simply take PASS standards and attempt to improve them and call them college- and career-ready...relegates our children to the same sad culture and set of expectations that existed when I entered office," said Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi.

Saying that the state can “no longer demonstrate that [its] standards are college- and career-ready,” the U.S. Department of Education (ED) revoked the waiver it granted to Oklahoma for additional flexibility from certain provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). ED’s decision comes on the heels of Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin’s (R) decision to sign legislation on June 5 to repeal and replace the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in Oklahoma with the Oklahoma Priority Academic Student Skills (PASS) standards that the state used from 2003 to 2010. Oklahoma joins Washington as the second state to have its waiver revoked.

The decision to revoke Oklahoma’s waiver was outlined in a letter to Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi from Deborah Delisle, ED’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. In the letter, Delisle writes that ESEA flexibility does not require states to adopt the CCSS; instead, it provides states with the option to “adopt college- and career-ready standards that are approved by a state network of institutions of higher education (IHEs), which must certify that students who meet the standards will not need remedial course work at the postsecondary level.” Delisle notes that Oklahoma notified ED on August 6 that the state “is not able to submit evidence from its state network of IHEs that the [PASS] standards in place prior to June 2010 are college- and career-ready, and that there is no timetable for that review to be completed.”

In a statement, Barresi calls the loss of the waiver “disappointing and frustrating” and a “significant challenge” for the state’s districts and schools, but she acknowledges that the loss of the waiver became “all but inevitable” when the state withdrew from the CCSS. “Oklahoma must craft and implement outstanding academic standards for English language arts and math that are college- and career-ready,” Barresi says. “To simply take PASS standards and attempt to improve them and call them college- and career-ready may satisfy the federal government to allow flexibility in spending, but it relegates our children to the same sad culture and set of expectations that existed when I entered office.”

By losing its waiver, Oklahoma must now meet the requirements outlined in NCLB, including a provision that 100 percent of Oklahoma students be proficient in reading and math by this school year or be deemed “in need of improvement” and subject to correctional action. Barresi notes that the number of schools designated as such will grow from 460 schools to more than 1,600 schools—nearly 90 percent of the state’s public schools—as a result of the state’s loss of its ESEA waiver. The loss of the waiver means that the state must proceed with overhauling schools identified as in need of improvement. The state would have also had to set aside roughly $30 million in Title I funds to pay for tutoring and school choice for students at those 1,600 schools, but ED granted Oklahoma until the start of the 2015–16 school year to meet those requirements.

Indiana also withdrew from the CCSS but had its waiver extended because the new standards it adopted were considered to be a combination of the CCSS and previous content standards the state has used. And in a key difference from Oklahoma, Indiana’s new standards were deemed college and career ready by Indiana’s IHEs. These new standards will be a combination of the CCSS as well as previous content standards that the state has developed and used in classrooms.

Over the course of the summer, the Obama administration has approved one-year extensions through the 2014–15 school year for the District of Columbia and twenty-three states,1 including Indiana, for continued flexibility with (i.e., waivers from) certain provisions of ESEA.

“ESEA flexibility has allowed states to move beyond the one-size-fits-all mandates of NCLB, to be more innovative, and to engage in continued improvement in ways that benefit educators and students,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “As a result, we have seen a renewed focus by states on improving student achievement, and to address the needs of all students, especially those groups of students that have been historically underserved.”

The waivers have been extended under a streamlined process that ED announced last November in which a state seeking a waiver extension is required to (1) submit a letter to ED requesting an extension and describing how ESEA flexibility has been effective in enabling the state to carry out the activities for which the flexibility was requested and how the flexibility has contributed to improved student achievement; and (2) resolve any state-specific issues and “next steps” identified as a result of ED’s monitoring, as well as other outstanding issues related to ESEA flexibility.

Additionally, Duncan announced in an August 21 appearance at Jefferson Middle School in Washington, DC that states with ESEA waivers can request a delay until the 2015–16 school year for the deadline that they use student test results in teacher evaluations.

“It doesn’t make sense to hold [teachers] accountable during this transition year for results on the new assessments—a test many of them have not seen before—and as many are coming up to speed with new standards,” Duncan writes in a blog post after his August 21 appearance. “Assessment is a vital part of teaching and learning, but it should be one part (and only one part) of how adults hold themselves responsible for students’ progress. … Schools, teachers and families need and deserve clear, useful information about how their students are progressing. … But assessment needs to be done wisely. No school or teacher should look bad because they took on kids with greater challenges. Growth is what matters. No teacher or school should be judged on any one test, or tests alone—always on a mix of measures—which could range from classroom observations to family engagement indicators.”

Forty-three states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico currently have ESEA flexibility. Of those forty-three states, thirty-five are due to see their flexibility expire this summer. Of those, thirty-four states have submitted an extension request and twenty-three received an extension of their waiver from ED.

1 The twenty-three states are Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

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