WASHINGTON — Millions of at-risk students could fall through the cracks as the Education Department gives states permission to ignore parts of No Child Left Behind, according to a study education advocates released Tuesday.

The Education Department has been giving some states waivers from the education law's requirements, including those to collect and publish data about students and then use the results to pinpoint problem schools. The resulting patchwork of rules – from Miami to Seattle – has given states more freedom to carry out plans to boost education but has allowed almost 2,300 schools to shed their label of seriously troubled, according to numbers compiled at the Campaign for High School Equity.

"It appears to us that waivers could lead to fewer students of color receiving the support they need," said Rufina Hernandez, executive director for the Campaign for High School Equity.

Her coalition of education reformers, civil rights activists and policy analysts studied the 34 states and the District of Columbia that had received waivers from No Child Left Behind before April.

Since then, another six states and a collection of individual districts in California have won waivers. Illinois, Iowa, Texas and Wyoming are still waiting for Education Secretary Arnie Duncan's verdict for their applications.

The results show students who are at the highest risk of dropping out – those from poor families, students whose native language is not English, those with learning disabilities and minority students – are often no longer tracked as carefully as they were before Duncan began exempting states from some requirements if they promised to better prepare their students for college or careers.

An Education Department spokesman declined to comment on the report.

For his part, Duncan has said the existing law does not allow school leaders to use common sense to determine what schools are failing and which are statistical anomalies. That lack of flexibility, Duncan has told lawmakers, has forced states to target too many schools.

Duncan has been vocal in calling for a replacement to No Child Left Behind that would render his waivers moot.

Under the original No Child Left Behind, schools that failed to teach at-risk students would be flagged if one group wasn't keeping pace. If one of the subgroups failed to meet its performance targets for two consecutive years, officials were required to stage an intervention to turn the entire school around.

But the advocates' review finds those in-depth reporting requirements have fallen by the wayside under the waivers. An intervention is no longer automatically triggered in as many as 19 states, meaning those efforts that once were at the center of the law are now optional. In 16 states, student groups are lumped together and treated as one bloc of at-risk pupils, essentially scrapping the reporting of at-risk groups by label.

The waivers make it easier to mask stumbles.

"The No Child Left Behind system itself was far from perfect," said Phillip Lovell, vice president for federal advocacy with the Alliance for Excellent Education. "Where is succeeded was shining the spotlight on the subgroups."

That spotlight now has dimmed, he said.

Take, for instance, Ohio. In that state, 856 schools failed to meet their performance benchmarks for at-risk students two years in a row. Under the waiver Duncan approved, the number of schools called troubled schools fell to 445. Of that smaller sum, only 162 schools were deemed an urgent priority.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, said Mike Petrilli, who has studied No Child Left Behind as a leader of the reform-minded Fordham Institute.

"The waivers allow states to prioritize. We should be saving the toughest interventions for schools that have low proficiency and low progress," said Petrilli, a former official at the Education Department. "The spirit of the law is to make sure that kids don't get left behind."

In all, 2,292 schools nationwide were deemed no longer needing special attention for improvement in states operating under waivers. In 13 states, the number of schools identified for intervention has dropped by more than 100 schools.

Duncan's department can adjust this, though, when states return to the Education Department seeking to continue running their schools outside of No Child Left Behind's rules. Duncan's hall passes only last one year and states face the threat of returning to No Child Left Behind's requirements if they don't execute their improvements plans.

The Education Department has already warned Kansas, Oregon and Washington state that their exemptions are at risk for the 2014-15 academic year if the schools there don't deliver on their applications' promises.

"They can get stricter to make sure the accountability happens in states and trigger the interventions that were in place under No Child Left Behind," said Hernandez, whose coalition includes the NAACP, the National Urban League and the National Council of La Raza.

In 2011, the Education Department announced that states could petition Duncan for waivers from No Child Left Behind's ambitious requirements, such as having all students read and count at grade level by 2014 or else risk their federal funding.

Duncan had hoped the specter of waivers would compel Congress to update No Child Left Behind, which expired in 2007 without renewal.

"The same year that No Child Left Behind came out, the iPod came out," Petrilli said. "We're still on No Child Left Behind, version 1.0, and we've had new versions of the iPod, iPhone, iPad."

Various rewrites of the law have been discussed but none has made its way to the White House for a president's signature. The Republican-led House has passed a version; a rewrite has been completed in the Senate education panel but no vote of the full body has been scheduled.

"NCLB is six years overdue for an update, and nearly all agree that it should be replaced with a law that gives systems and educators greater freedom while continuing to fulfill the law's original promise," Duncan wrote in Sunday's Washington Post.

"In the months ahead, I will ask Congress to listen to those doing the real work of education change," he added.

___

On the Web: http://www.highschoolequity.org/images/WaiversReport_R8.pdf

___

Follow Philip Elliott on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/philip_elliott

Earlier on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • This video image provided by House Television shows Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, on the floor of the House on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012.

  • Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, on the floor of the House on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012.

  • Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohion) seems to fight back tears while listening to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol March 9, 2011 in Washington, DC. Gillard emphasized the long and strong bond between her country and the U.S.

  • Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) seems to fight back tears while listening to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol March 9, 2011 in Washington, DC. Gillard emphasized the long and strong bond between her country and the United States.

  • Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) seems to fight back tears while listening to Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress from the floor of the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol March 9, 2011 in Washington, DC. Gillard emphasized the long and strong bond between her country and the United States.

  • Fighting back tears as he recounted his rise from humble beginnings to the presumed Speaker of the House, House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) addresses the Republican National Congressional Committee's midterm election results watch party at the Grand Hyatt hotel November 2, 2010 in Washington, DC. Major news organizations have said that the Republicans will win enough seats to take control of the House of Representatives.

  • Fighting back tears as he recounted his rise from humble beginnings to the presumed Speaker of the House, House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) addresses the Republican National Congressional Committee's midterm election results watch party at the Grand Hyatt hotel November 2, 2010 in Washington, DC. Major news organizations have said that the Republicans will win enough seats to take control of the House of Representatives.

  • House Republican leader John Boehner, R-OH, fights back tears as he addresses the National Republican Congressional Committee Election Night Results Watch event in Washington, DC, on November 2, 2010. An emotional John Boehner, the presumed speaker-elect of the US House of Representatives, told fellow Republicans at the victory party that Americans have sent President Obama message to 'change course'.

  • Fighting back tears as he recounted his rise from humble beginnings to the presumed Speaker of the House, House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) addresses the Republican National Congressional Committee's midterm election results watch party at the Grand Hyatt hotel November 2, 2010 in Washington, DC. Major news organizations have said that the Republicans will win enough seats to take control of the House of Representatives.

  • Astronaut Neil Armstrong (L) recievces the Congressional Gold Medal from Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) during a ceremony in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol November 16, 2011 in Washington, DC. The gold medals were presented to Armstrong and his fellow crew members from Apollo 11, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, and to astronaut and former U.S. Senator John Glenn (D-Ohio), the first American to orbit the Earth.

  • Astronaut Neil Armstrong receives the Congressional Gold Medal from Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) during a ceremony in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol November 16, 2011 in Washington, DC. The gold medals were presented to Armstrong and his fellow crew members from Apollo 11, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, and to astronaut and former U.S. Senator John Glenn (D-Ohio), the first American to orbit the Earth.

  • House Speaker John Boehner <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ufYmnD3fhfk&feature=related" target="_hplink">chokes up in an interview on CBS</a>.

  • Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) wipes his eyes as outgoing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) prepares to hand over over the speaker's gavel following his election in the House chamber January 5, 2011 in Washington, DC.