Obama Frees 10 States From “No Child” Education-Testing Rules

President Barack Obama freed 10 states from provisions of the No Child Left Behind education-testing law after they proposed alternative ways to hold schools accountable for student achievement.

Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee received waivers from the law, enacted under former President George W. Bush, a Republican. In exchange, the states agreed to raise education standards and tie teacher evaluations to student achievement.

Obama, a Democrat, has pledged to fix the 10-year-old No Child Left Behind Law, saying its focus on standardized-test results waters down teaching, narrows school curriculums and labels even high-achieving schools as failing. Republicans, including the chairman of the House education committee, said Congress, not the administration, should change No Child Left Behind and said Obama’s waivers amount to executive overreach.

“We can combine greater freedom with greater accountability,” Obama said at the White House before an audience of state education officials, teachers, civil rights and business leaders. “Each of these states has set higher benchmarks for student achievement.”

Almost half of U.S. public schools are considered failing under the federal No Child Left Behind law, according to a report in December by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based nonpartisan research group. The administration has cited the failure rate as a reason to offer states and local school authorities more flexibility.

Setting Standards

Under No Child Left Behind, each state establishes its own proficiency tests and determines what constitutes passing. That system penalized states with higher standards and gives them an incentive to make tests easier, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a briefing yesterday with reporters. In addition, high-performing schools can be labeled as failing if a subgroup of students -- such as students with disabilities or those who speak English as a second language -- don’t pass tests.

The education law was due for an overhaul more than five years ago. The administration gave Congress a “blueprint for reform” in March 2010. Congress hasn’t acted.

“Our kids and our schools can’t be held back by inaction,” Obama said.


The states getting waivers would be exempt from the requirement that all students pass achievement tests by 2014 -- and make progress toward that goal each year -- or risk losing federal funding. To get the waivers, states had to come up with ways to measure achievement and show they were making progress toward improving it, with an emphasis on turning around the lowest-performing schools.

Each state could come up with its own approach. Massachusetts will be giving schools credit for helping students get advanced scores on state achievement exams, rather than merely passing the tests, Duncan said. Georgia pledged to hold schools accountable for producing graduates who can enter college without the need for taking remedial academic classes, he said.

An 11th state, New Mexico, has requested an exemption from the requirements of the 2002 law, and 28 other states, joined by Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, have alerted the Department of Education of their intent to seek waivers.

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who heads the Senate education committee, released a draft bill in October that would overhaul No Child Left Behind, freeing all but the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools from the threat of federal sanctions.

‘Waiver Scheme’

In the House, Representative John Kline, the Minnesota Republican chairman of the education committee, is proposing a series of bills to change the law. The Education Department waivers may damage congressional efforts to fix No Child Left Behind, he said.

“The administration’s waiver scheme provides just enough temporary relief to quiet the demand for lasting reform,” Kline said in a statement today as he introduced two measures, including one that would replace federal with state-developed accountability systems.

Senator Mike Enzi, the Wyoming Republican who is the ranking member of the Senate education committee, called the waivers “an end run around Congress.”

“This action clearly politicizes education policy, which historically has been a bipartisan issue,” Enzi said in a statement.

The president’s plan sets a precedent because past Education Department waivers have been on “smaller issues,” rather than amounting to a way to bypass Congress to change a law, Diane Rentner, interim director of the Center on Education Policy, said in an interview. States are pushing hard to get relief from the law, she said.

“There’s a recognition that something needed to happen,” Rentner said in a phone interview. “It doesn’t appear that Congress is able to do that.”

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