By Thursday, the Obama administration will have waived 32 states and Washington, D.C. from No Child Left Behind -- sort of.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is gearing up to announce that Arizona, Washington, D.C., Oregon, South Carolina, Kansas, Michigan, and Mississippi are now exempt from No Child Left Behind's rigorous test requirements through the administration's waivers. In a Wednesday call with reporters, Duncan called the process "a nationwide bipartisan movement toward next-generation education reform."
But eight of the 32 NCLB waivers granted to states are conditional, meaning those states have not entirely satisfied the administration's requirements and part of their plans are under review.
When campaigning in 2008, President Barack Obama promised he would release states from the 2002 law, a signature initiative of President George W. Bush's administration that requires standardized testing of students and a system of penalties for low test scores.
While advocates credit the law for exposing test-score gaps among student groups, even the law's original cheerleaders acknowledge its mechanism for labeling schools that didn't make progress is too broad, its mandated tutoring remedies rarely boost student achievement and the 2014 goal that 100 percent of U.S. students be deemed "proficient" in science and math is unrealistic.
The law expired in 2007. Despite a few attempts, Congress has failed to rewrite it. After Congress missed Obama's fall deadline for refreshing the law, the administration began offering states relief from its toughest parts.
In exchange for the waivers, states had to agree to a plan that included parts of the Obama education agenda, which includes "college- and career-ready" standards and grading teachers, using, in part, students' standardized test scores. Under the agenda, only 15 percent of each state's lowest-performing schools would be penalized.
But now, about a quarter of states receiving waivers haven't exactly fulfilled all the requirements.
"It is definitely in the administration's interest to approve as many of these waivers as possible before the election," said Michael Petrilli, an executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning Washington, D.C.-based education think tank. "This was a promise that the president made in his campaign: to fix No Child Left Behind. He wants to be able to make the case that he has done so through this waiver process."
Arizona's, Oregon's and Kansas' waivers are conditional, according to Acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Michael Yudin. Arizona has not yet received state board approval for teacher evaluations, and Kansas and Oregon are both still developing teacher and principal evaluation guidelines.
Washington's waiver, announced two weeks ago, depends on the state finalizing its teacher and principal evaluations, and crafting its school accountability system. The U.S. Education Department will have to approve both. Until then, the state will revise its performance targets, and will seek to halve the percentage of students who aren't proficient within six years.
"Obama wants to be able to say, 'I have fixed the law in your state' even if behind the scenes there is some negotiation going on," Petrilli said.
Duncan has said he will monitor whether states uphold their waiver commitments, but Petrilli said it is very unlikely he will force non-compliant states back to the old accountability systems. "That would be total chaos," Petrilli said. "The department is not going to have much leverage over these states."
The Education Department is currently reviewing five other applications. States have until early September to apply. Several states have not applied, and some, like Montana, Idaho and Texas, aren't expected to; Duncan has signaled that the administration might allow districts in those states to apply for waivers independently.
"That absolutely remains a possibility," Duncan said, but added that wouldn't happen until all state deadlines passed.
The following have now received No Child Left Behind waivers: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Washington, D.C. and Wisconsin.
In addition, five states that did not complete the waiver process -- and one whose application was rejected -- got a one-year freeze on the rising targets for standardized test scores: Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Maine and West Virginia.