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Mass. may seek ‘No Child’ waiver

Mandate seen as needless, unrealistic

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / August 21, 2011

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Massachusetts may join a growing number of states in revolting against an unpopular provision of a federal education law that has caused thousands of schools nationwide, including more than half the schools in Massachusetts, to be designated as in need of improvement.

The schools, nearly 1,000 in Massachusetts, have repeatedly stumbled in boosting state standardized test scores fast enough to fulfill what many educators consider to be an elusive and unrealistic requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act: that all students, regardless of a learning disability, lack of motivation, or any other academic barrier, will demonstrate proficiency - a solid command of grade-level material - on state exams by 2014.

It is a particularly high bar for Massachusetts, whose statewide standards for student attainment are among the toughest in the country. And the consequences of falling short are serious - including the possibility of the state taking over underperforming schools.

Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said in an interview last week that Massachusetts is giving serious consideration to filing for a waiver from the 100 percent proficiency rule, under a new program announced this month by the Obama administration.

“For me, the reason filing a waiver makes sense for Massachusetts is that [the rule] no longer does a good job of differentiating our strongest performers from our weakest performers,’’ Chester said. “We have many schools in the Commonwealth at this point that are failing the federal requirements but are not failing schools.’’

But in a state with a reputation for having some of the highest academic standards in the country, the possibility of abandoning the 100 percent proficiency rule is drawing sharp criticism from some education advocates.

A waiver could thwart state efforts to galvanize more school districts to develop innovative approaches to accelerate student achievement, said Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council and a former state board education chairman.

“The state with the best-performing students in the country shouldn’t need a waiver from a high expectation regulation,’’ Anderson said. “I don’t think Massachusetts should apply for a waiver to reduce expectations on what we expect kids to achieve.’’

The waivers have sparked heated debate in Washington, with many members of Congress arguing that the Obama administration has no legal right to waive the requirement. Administration officials contend that they do, as they deride the George W. Bush-era law for exaggerating the number of potentially failing schools and thereby preventing school districts from devoting their limited resources to the schools actually in greatest need.

A waiver for Massachusetts could lift a burden from hundreds of elementary, middle, and high schools in urban and suburban districts, as well as dozens of charter schools, that have been designated for improvement under the law.

Chester, who has expressed misgivings about the 100 percent rule over the past three years, said he will decide definitively on filing a waiver after the Obama administration releases the program’s criteria, which is expected to happen next month.

The 100 percent rule has been immensely unpopular since its debut nine years ago. Massachusetts educators have long charged that the rule has led to a regrettable public shaming of schools - including many that fare well according to other measures, such as national standardized tests or graduation rates - and has fostered a culture of “teaching to the test’’ as some schools labor to avoid public ridicule or state sanctions.

Under the law, states are required to announce annually whether schools are making progress in getting all students to proficiency on state exams, such as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. Schools that fall short of testing targets can receive one of three designations - in need of improvement, corrective action, or restructuring - and must come up with plans to address their weaknesses. Remedies range from providing tutoring for students to radical overhauls of programs, teacher training, and staffing. Failure to improve could lead to a state takeover, although Massachusetts has not taken that step.

An analysis six years ago by Cape Ann economist Edward Moscovitch predicted three-quarters of the state’s schools would fail to achieve 100 percent proficiency by 2014, and the trajectory Moscovitch laid out then appears to be on track with actual state counts, according to the state’s superintendents association.

Local educators and representatives for the state’s school committee, superintendent, and teacher unions welcomed the possible change, while stressing they would keep pushing every student to achieve at high levels.

“We have high expectations for all students, but you have to be realistic as well,’’ said Kamal Chavda, assistant superintendent for research, assessment, and evaluation for the Boston public schools, noting for example that immigrant students who enroll in the city’s schools not knowing English are going to need more time to reach proficiency.

Last fall, more than three-quarters of Boston schools were identified for improvement, corrective action, or restructuring, and few schools over the years have shed those designations. It has been a source of frustration for district leaders, especially at schools where test scores are rising, but not fast enough.

Some education advocates blame Massachusetts officials for the predicament, arguing the state set the bar for proficiency too high with MCAS testing. The federal government let each state define proficiency, and Massachusetts decided students needed to score in at least the second highest of the four MCAS scoring categories. Several other states set a much lower bar, enabling more students to reach proficiency.

“It’s the state that created the problem here, not the federal government,’’ said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, who supports less regulatory control of local schools.

The Obama administration pitched the waiver program this month, after efforts to change the law as part of its reauthorization stalled again in Congress.

The US Education Department was also facing a growing revolt from many western states, such as Montana and Utah, which vowed to ignore the proficiency rule or lower the bar for proficiency, a move that could have forced US education officials to cut off funding or enact other sanctions.

US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has called the law a “slow-motion train wreck,’’ has pushed for a more nuanced way to judge schools that would go beyond reliance on test scores.

While some members of Congress support that move, others prefer tinkering with the proficiency requirement or killing the law entirely, believing Washington should have no role in telling states how to educate students.

Justin Hamilton, a US Education Department spokesman, said the department hopes all states will apply for a waiver.

“States across the country have been asking for relief from this law we all know is broken,’’ he said. “We want to help them put in place a system that will help all children succeed.’’

Massachusetts appears to have favorable odds of securing a waiver. Duncan has said states can qualify if they sign onto the president’s education agenda, which Massachusetts did last year in order to win $250 million from Obama’s Race to the Top grant program.

While it is still unclear what the criteria will be for a waiver, those states that qualify would be allowed to replace the 100 percent proficiency requirement with their own accountability system, subject to US approval, Hamilton said.

Last year, Massachusetts created a new way to identify the schools in greatest need of help, zeroing in on the 20 percent of schools with the lowest MCAS scores and giving superintendents extraordinary powers to extend school days and make other union-contract changes at schools designated as “underperforming’’ by the state.

“Our own state law does a good job of drilling down on schools that are failing too many students,’’ Chester said. “The problem with the federal standard is that when it identifies a majority of schools in a state like Massachusetts as needing improvement, the standard loses its credibility.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.