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Mass. seeks waiver from 'No Child Left Behind'

By Bob Salsberg
Associated Press / October 25, 2011

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BOSTON—The Massachusetts education board voted Tuesday to seek a waiver from the requirements of No Child Left Behind, the federal law once championed by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy but now viewed by the Obama administration and most states as an unrealistic measure of academic progress.

"The federal system demands perfection. It expects every school and district to get 100 percent of its students proficient," said Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester after the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 8-0 on Tuesday to support the waiver request.

"Perfection is just not reasonable," he said.

Massachusetts is among some 40 states that have sought a waiver from No Child Left Behind or informed the U.S. Department of Education of their intention to do so.

The 2002 law required new testing requirements for students in the nation's public schools that receive federal funding and set a goal of having all children proficient in reading and math by 2014. It established a measuring tool, called "adequate yearly progress," or AYP, designed to show how student performance was improving on a year-to-year basis.

But critics say the measurements lack credibility.

State education officials reported last month that 82 percent of all Massachusetts schools and 91 percent of school districts failed to meet performance targets in the last school year, figures Chester called "absolutely misleading."

"The vast majority of our schools are performing at much higher levels than they were five years ago. That 90 percent failure rate in our districts is not at all representative of what is happening," he said.

"It's been shown that adequate yearly progress is a flawed measure," said Gov. Deval Patrick, who backed the waiver request. "We need to have measures that actually capture what it is we are doing so that we can make adjustments in accordance with that reality and that part of No Child Left Behind is just not working."

Massachusetts is asking the federal government to back the state's own five-tiered educational accountability system. Under that system, the state can move to intervene in schools and districts that are deemed underperforming or worse, chronically underperforming, based on results of the standardized Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, exams in English and math.

The state also plans to set six-year targets for every school in Massachusetts that seek to cut in half the number of students who are not performing at their respective grade levels.

"That to me is ambitious, but hopefully doable," said Chester.

Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who died in 2009, was a co-sponsor of No Child Left Behind that passed Congress with bipartisan support and was signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush.

The law was due for a five-year review in 2007, but lawmakers decided at the time to put off the review until after the 2008 presidential election.

After taking office, Obama and U.S. education officials determined the law as currently written was flawed and asked Congress to make major revisions. But after expressing frustration at lawmakers' inability to act on changes, the president announced last month that he would allow states to seek exemptions from the requirements of the law if they presented alternative standards for educational accountability.

Waiver requests submitted by Nov. 14 will be reviewed by the Department of Education in November, while those submitted by a second deadline of mid-February 2012 would be reviewed in the spring, with the goal of having all waivers approved by the end of the 2011-2012 school year.

In addition to Massachusetts, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Wisconsin intend to submit a plan by the Nov. 14 deadline, according to the department.

States that anticipate seeking waivers by February include Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia and Washington, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

A Senate committee voted last week to forward to the Senate a bill that rewrites No Child Left Behind to do away with some of the law's current proficiency standards and give states more control over accountability in schools. But a House committee is taking a different approach to revising the law, and it hasn't yet fully tackled more contentious issues such as teacher accountability.