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Report: ESEA reauthorization could be trouble for waiver states

A reauthorized ESEA should consider that federal waivers created a wide range of accountability systems.

A new report surveying states that have applied for and received No Child Left Behind waivers finds they are worried that reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) could hinder progress painstakingly made in school reform over the past year.

The report, released by the Center on Education Policy (CEP), notes that last year Education Secretary Arne Duncan began to grant states waivers on key NCLB accountability requirements. The waiver guidelines let states depart from some of NCLB’s more strict requirements, such as judging school performance against a goal of 100 percent of students reaching reading and math “proficiency” by 2014, and implementing specific interventions in schools that fall short of performance targets.

However, states with approved waiver applications must meet several new requirements that relate to standards and assessments, accountability systems, teacher and principal evaluation, and reductions in administrative burden.

As of press time, 34 states and the District of Columbia have received NCLB waivers.

And while many states are satisfied with the NCLB waivers and their revised requirements, many worry what will happen to their new school reform policies if ESEA is reauthorized. The waiver guidelines state that if Congress completes the reauthorization and the president signs it into law, the education secretary may terminate the waivers if they are superseded by the reauthorization provisions.

(Next page: States’ major concerns)

Nineteen states expressed general concern about issues such as the confusion this situation would cause, its impact on the perceptions of stakeholders, and the potential costs of implementing yet another accountability system.

There would be “great confusion and resentment in the field and huge administrative burden to redesign and re-communicate another new system,” said one surveyed state.

“This would cause a great resource burden on our state, and would also undermine the credibility of our department of education (and potentially our state government) among districts, educators, parents, and stakeholders,” said another state. “There has been (and is) a careful and lengthy process of communicating with those groups and gaining their input and support. To begin again with a new system would undermine the progress made towards a system built on shared values and transparency.”

Can Congress help?

With waivers fully in place in most states and ESEA’s fate still unknown, states’ concerns, coupled with the report’s findings, “highlight several key policy implications that federal and state policy makers should consider in the months ahead,” according the report. For example:

  • A reauthorized ESEA should take into account that federal NCLB waivers have created a wide range of accountability systems that are diverse in their approach and requirements. “Although at this point we have no idea if the policies enacted as a result of the waivers will have a positive impact on student achievement,” says the report, waiver states said they would like to maintain some continuity in their policies. If ESEA is reauthorized in 2013 or 2014, “careful monitoring of the impact and outcomes of these systems should be a major component of ESEA,” as well as triggers that end a state’s flexibility if the Education Department finds that an accountability plan is not working.
  • A reauthorized ESEA should be informed by analysis and research on what has and has not worked with the evaluation systems currently being implemented in states.
  • There must be a rigorous system of monitoring state progress on achievement for all student groups in both waiver and non-waiver states that makes public the results in a timely and transparent manner.

“The waivers create a dilemma for members of Congress about whether they can come up with a reauthorization that would be as well received,” the report says.

“While it is still too early to draw any significant conclusions regarding the impact of the federal waivers on student achievement, CEP’s survey indicates that states are moving forward with accountability plans, evaluation systems, and efforts to implement college- and career-ready standards for all students,” the report concludes. “…More time, information, and careful monitoring will be needed to determine whether the waiver systems are working and which policies should be continued.”

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Meris Stansbury

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