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Montana receives testing waiver

Leads pushback on No Child law

By Sam Dillon
New York Times / August 15, 2011

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HELENA, Mont. - As hundreds of schools here and across the nation faced being labeled failures under the federal No Child Left Behind law, Montana education officials defiantly informed Washington this spring that they would stop raising testing targets as the law requires, despite warnings that doing so could cost the state millions of dollars in federal aid.

But in an agreement to be announced here today, Education Secretary Arne Duncan will allow Montana to keep most of the schools off the law’s blacklist, and the state will pay no penalty.

With several other Western states also rebelling against the requirement that 100 percent of American students be proficient in English and math by 2014, some education officials and experts see signs that years of federal dominance of public school accountability may be drawing to a close.

“Pretty soon all the schools will be failing in America, and at that point the law becomes meaningless,’’ said Larry K. Shumway, superintendent of public instruction in Utah. “States are going to sit and watch federal accountability implode. We’re seeing the end of an era.’’

It is no secret that the Obama administration dislikes many provisions of the No Child law, which President George W. Bush signed in 2002 and vigorously enforced, in court and with fines against states - including Texas, his own.

Duncan has called the law a “slow-motion train wreck,’’ had tried unsuccessfully to get Congress to rewrite it, and last week promised to provide waivers this fall to states that sign on to the president’s school-improvement agenda, with criteria similar to those in his Race to the Top grant competition.

When state officials in Montana and a handful of other states simply refused to follow the strictures of the No Child law in recent weeks, his aides quietly helped them find provisions in the law that avoided a public showdown, signaling a more profound shift.

In Montana, 158 schools were to be newly labeled as failures. But that number fell to three when federal officials allowed the state to redraw its schedule of testing targets, a critical component of No Child Left Behind’s ambitious approach to forcing all schools to show steady progress toward 100 percent proficiency.

The uprising by states began in April, when Denise Juneau, Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, was calculating how many of her schools would not reach their targets this year.

Of the state’s 821 public schools, 225 had already fallen short. If the targets, which the law calls annual measurable objectives, rose again as scheduled, that number would increase to 383, including many schools that Juneau said were raising student achievement.

On April 25, Juneau wrote to the education secretary asking for “some alleviation of the strict across the board, one-size-fits-all, absolute bar of 100 percent proficiency.’’

Six weeks later, she hosted a meeting of school chiefs from 10 rural states and passed around her defiant letter. “We’re not asking for permission,’’ Juneau told the group. “We’re just telling them we won’t raise our annual objectives this year.’’

The superintendents in Idaho, Utah, and South Dakota soon sent their own letters to Washington. Six states have joined the chorus in recent weeks, using less defiant language but still asking for relief from the testing mandates, according to Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

It was in this context of educational insurrection by some states that President Obama and Duncan developed their waivers initiative.