Educators waiting for relief from No Child Left Behind

Published 10:15 am Thursday, August 18, 2011

Educators across the state are holding their breath and their paperwork.

They’re waiting to see if the U.S. Department of Education fulfills Minnesota’s waiver request to be relieved of No Child Left Behind sanctions and hold NCLB accountability goals steady.

“It gives everybody in the state a chance to step back and ask ourselves, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’” said Jerry Reshetar, superintendent of Grand Meadow and Glenville/Emmons Public Schools.

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Yet it also complicates things for local educators. School administrators would normally review their schools’ Adequate Yearly Progress results on the Minnesota Comprehensive Exam at this time of the year. The Minnesota Department of Education pushed back the release date for AYP Math and English test results due to the state government shutdown this year. MDE officials haven’t given a solid release date for the results, but they claim results should be released by Sept. 30.

Since districts don’t have the results, they can’t get to work on AYP improvement plans for schools that fail to make AYP goals. What’s more, MDE officials have recommended districts to hold paperwork relating to AYP until the U.S. Dept. of Ed makes a decision on Minnesota’s waiver.

“We’re still going to need to be ready to work on our planning,” said John Alberts, director of educational services at Austin Public Schools. “You still have to be ready in case the waiver is denied.”

MDE officials sent the proposal Tuesday to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to allow Minnesota to freeze AYP target goals in math and English proficiency for the next three years and to waive financial penalties on Minnesota schools during that time.

If the waiver is approved, the state still would release proficiency scores for schools, said state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, but without the AYP designations. Starting in 2011-12, no new schools or districts would be identified for improvement for three years or until the law is rewritten.

“I don’t think that parents need us to label their schools,” she said.

It remains to be seen what conditions the federal government will require in return for waivers and whether those will make sense for Minnesota, said Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, who chairs the education committee.

But “I have no objection to seeking the waiver,” Olson said. “It lets things stay as they are instead of continually raising the bar while we haven’t been able to make some of the needed changes to get where we need to go.”

In the application to Duncan, Cassellius called No Child Left Behind “a failed law that does not accurately measure our state’s progress toward higher expectations and better academic achievement for all students.”

She acknowledged the state is falling short of its goals and called the gap between white affluent students and their minority low-income peers a “crisis that demands urgent attention.”

In exchange for the waivers, she pledged to implement a new accountability system with fewer tests, a focus on student growth and targeted support for persistently low-performing schools.

There was no description of what the accountability system would look like, but Casselius said in the proposal that MDE officials would model the system after the principles in the Council of Chief State School Officers accountability framework. That system, which CCSSO released in June, offers guidelines on how states should set up test score systems similar to AYP while eliminating some of AYP’s drawbacks.

Cassellius said she’s not sure when the state will hear if its application is approved.

Minnesota is one of 24 states interested in the waiver system announced by Duncan this month. MDE officials join Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee as states who have applied for the waiver with no decision yet, according to the Center on Education Policy.

Idaho is the only state to have its waiver granted, although there are special cases for Montana, South Dakota and Utah, which have reached out to Dept. of Ed officials for special exceptions for their NCLB accountability programs.

Kansas asked for a waiver earlier this year and was denied by Dept. of Ed officials. Arkansas’s waiver proposal was denied.

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.