WASHINGTON – Arizona officials have asked to replace federal standards under the No Child Left Behind act with state-level student performance standards and a school accountability system that they say will be more efficient and less burdensome.
The waiver, if approved by the U.S. Department of Education, would free the state from a federal mandate that 100 percent of Arizona schools be declared proficient by 2014 or run the risk of being labeled “failing.”
Arizona was one of 26 states and the District of Columbia that filed Tuesday for a waiver, following 11 that have already been granted waivers by the federal government. Besides easing the 2014 deadline, the waivers can give states more flexibility in how they spend education dollars.
“Getting this flexibility will allow the state to continue doing what we’ve already started to do in some of these areas and give us the flexibility to use on a system of assessment,” said Arizona Department of Education spokesman Andrew LeFevre. He said having a state-derived assessment system “would take a lot of uncertainty off the table – not only for schools, but for parents as well.”
Assessment is one of four criteria – along with student prep, educator evaluation and school efficiencies – the state must meet to get a federal waiver from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as No Child Left Behind. Arizona officials believe they already meet the three standards and are well on their way to developing the fourth, acceptable assessment criteria.
The state recently implemented a state school-accountability system that grades schools on an A through F scale. That is in addition to the federal scorecard that rates schools on their adequate yearly progress, or AYP, toward student proficiency in math and reading.
LeFevre said one goal of the waiver is to replace the two scoring systems with one.
“In our minds that makes it a little easier for parents to understand because there’s only one system for parents to pay attention to,” he said.
Arizona is one of many states seeking to replace the AYP with their own accountability measures, said Diane Rentner, interim director for the Center on Education Policy.
“It’s one less thing to have to do,” Rentner said of the move to eliminate redundant scorecards. Arizona officials “may be on solid ground saying that, but the peer reviewers may want more.”
The latest states to apply for waivers have a “huge advantage” because of the 11 states that went before them, Rentner said. It makes the waiver “less of a mysterious process.”
But that does not mean that Arizona is in the clear. Peer reviewers will be assigned and will meet next month to analyze each state’s request, according to the U.S. Department of Education, which hopes to have decisions in time for the next school year.
State officials are confident that Arizona’s education reforms over the last two years will help secure the waiver.
In 2010, Arizona adopted academic standards and assessments in line with the college- and career-ready standards required for a waiver, and in December the state got a $25 million grant from the federal Race to the Top program to help move to those standards.
The state is also working to implement new principal and teacher evaluations under standards adopted by the State Board of Education in April. It has also made necessary administrative reorganizations since Superintendent John Huppenthal took office last year, LeFevre said.
“We’re already very far down that road,” LeFevre said. “We don’t have to do anything other than show them (federal reviewers) what we’re already doing.”
Gov. Jan Brewer said she supports Huppenthal’s efforts to seek a waiver from No Child Left Behind, along with other education reform programs like Arizona Ready, which Brewer began developing last year to coincide with the Race to the Top grant.
“We want the very best education for our children and we want accountability from those people that provide it,” she said Monday. “I think that if we can get the waiver and we could move along with my program that we would be smashingly successful.”
State educators agree the waiver is a step in the right direction for Arizona, although they may quibble with some of the details.
Joe Thomas, vice president of the Arizona Education Association, said the teachers union supports moving away from No Child Left Behind in order to better serve the state’s schools.
“We don’t agree with all the phrasing and rationale in the waiver,” he said. “We do believe that applying for the waiver is in the best interest of our students, the best interest of our teachers and the best interest of our districts.”
Leaving behind ‘No Child Left Behind’
The federal government will grant waivers under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as No Child Left Behind, if states develop:
1. College- and career-ready standards and annual assessments measuring student growth.
2. A school accountability system that provides incentives and support.
3. Effective teacher and principal evaluations and support systems.
4. Administrative reorganization plans to reduce duplication and unnecessary burden on local school systems.
If approved for a waiver, states could:
1. Set their own annual school achievement targets.
2. Drop the federal mandate that schools that do not meet annual achievement targets set under No Child Left Behind be labeled “failing.”
3. Have states more flexibility on school spending.