In a move that could give Illinois more flexibility over how it holds schools accountable, the Obama administration announced Thursday that it will waive key portions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act for states that commit to certain reform efforts.
In recent years, state superintendents, educators and critics of the law have argued that it does not provide an adequate picture of a school’s success, relies too heavily on testing and sets an unrealistic goal by mandating that 100 percent of students meet basic skills requirements by 2014.
“This is not a step back from accountability,” a senior official at the U.S. Department of Education said. “Our role is to simply get out of the way as best we can.”
Under No Child Left Behind, states are required to test students in certain grades on basic math and reading skills, which are then used to determine whether schools are making adequate yearly progress. If a school does not meet that standard, it can face a variety of sanctions, including an overhaul of staff.
Officials said they hope waivers will reduce the pressure on educators to “teach to the test.”
States can begin applying for waivers in mid-November and during a second round in January. If Illinois were to be granted a waiver, school officials would be able to reset the benchmarks used to determine a school’s success. They also would have access to federal money earmarked for specific No Child Left Behind programs, such as giving students the ability to transfer out of a failing school into a better performing one.
Critics of the law and Education Department officials who announced the guidelines Thursday said the current law “over-identifies” identifies many schools as failing.
In Illinois, all but one school district–Lake Forest–was labeled as failing at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, according to the state’s most recent data. In 2006, 268 Chicago Public Schools did not make adequate yearly progress, and in 2010 the number nearly doubled, to 476 schools.
The changes announced Friday will allow states to apply for exemption from the law’s requirements, but they must set more rigorous curriculum standards, focus on turning around 15 percent of their most-troubled schools and establish teacher and principal evaluations that are tied in some way to student performance.
Illinois will likely seek such a waiver, said State Board of Education spokeswoman Mary Fergus.
“We’ve noticed over time that the law is not reflecting or acknowledging schools that are making gains,” she said.
Fergus said Illinois is well-positioned to receive a waiver. The state recently adopted Common Core standards, a set of curriculum requirements aimed at preparing students for college, and will be switching to a new state test that aligns with those standards rather than the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, which many critics say has been dumbed down over the years. The recent passage of education reform legislation that redefines how teachers are evaluated and earn tenure is also likely to help Illinois should it seek a waiver.
Chicago Public Schools spokesman Frank Shuftan said the district has not had a chance to evaluate the waiver guidelines and was unable to comment.
Raymond Lauk, Superintendent of Cook County School District 130, defended No Child Left Behind, saying it gives districts “momentum for some significant deep changes that they may not have otherwise taken.”
“The law is clearly not a perfect one,” Lauk said, “But in terms of the waivers, I don’t see the need for it. It’s just looking for a way to cheat kids.”
“When I hear other colleagues say, ‘You know we’re never going to meet 100 percent,’ then I ask, ‘What are the names of the kids we’re willing to fail?’ ”