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Vermont opts out of No Child Left Behind waiver

By Lisa Rathke
Associated Press / June 3, 2012
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MONTPELIER, Vt.—After applying for a waiver for flexibility from the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, Vermont has changed its mind and will not pursue the application, saying the waiver and so-called flexibility are not as flexible as officials hoped they would be.

The U.S. Department of Education announced last week that it has approved waivers for another eight states. A total of 19 states have gotten waivers to date, in exchange for providing their own plans to improve student outcomes and teaching quality.

But the Vermont Board of Education voted to opt out of seeking the waiver on May 15 because the state would still be required to give annual standardized tests, officials said.

"Our main interest was in being able to assess students in a more complete way and not have the arbitrary testing and all the repercussions from that, and that's not what they meant by waiver," said Stephan Morse, chairman of the state board of education.

The federal law, which has been up for renewal since 2007, requires all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. The waiver gets rid of that mandate as long as the states provide an acceptable alternative plan.

Last August, Gov. Peter Shumlin had urged the state Department of Education to seek the waiver, a day after the Obama administration gave the states a way around parts of the law.

Shumlin said at the time that the federal law was hurting the state's schools and the ability to deliver quality education. He wanted the state to come up with an assessment system that better suited Vermont and to request that the state be held to the 2009 levels for testing so that more teachers aren't moved because the measurement system doesn't reflect individual students' progress.

A group met over six months and talked with federal education officials before the application was first submitted in late January, said John Fischer, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Education.

The proposal moved away from yearly standardized testing to every other year for grades three to eight and looked at what the state called a more relevant test for high school students, such as the ACT or SAT, Fischer said.

Very quickly, the state learned that the application would not be accepted by the U.S. Education Department because of a lack of annual testing, he said.

Vermont modified its approach, putting annual testing back in. But a stumbling block was a requirement that a significant portion of teacher effectiveness be measured by standardized test results.

"We did not want to use NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program) scores as a significant portion of a teacher's assessment," Fischer said.

Since the application had changed from its original intent, the department felt it had to take it back to the governor and state board of education, who voted not to seek the waiver. The Department of Education concurred.

"It was just we took the shot at being really out of the box and game-changing the accountability system for schools. Generally, in Vermont, we've got great schools. We were looking at a continuous improvement cycle, not turning around failing schools," Fischer said.

The Vermont National Education Association, which represents teachers, supports the state withdrawing but is disappointed that a significant portion of teacher evaluations are tied to the annual testing. The union is fine with having the results be a part of the evaluation but not a big part of it.

"We feel it should left up to districts as to how much they want to do that and make sure they have multiple indicators," said Martha Allen, president of Vermont-NEA.

The percentage of teachers that might have an impact on the scores from the annual test are low because they don't teach the subjects that are tested: reading and math. Plus, test results tend to vary depending on the socio-economic status of the kids, something teachers shouldn't be punished for, she said.

"It just doesn't seem like it's helpful, and it's punitive," she said.

Vermont is working with other states on a new assessment system that's not based on how much time they're in class, but on how much they've learned.

"What we want to move toward is student's progress regardless of time so some students can take shorter amounts of time to gain knowledge and other students may take longer, but that doesn't fit into an accountability system based solely on standardized testing," he said.

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