SEATTLE — Although more than half the states are now exempt from the toughest requirements of the federal "No Child Left Behind" education law, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Friday his goal remains to help Congress fix the law, not to sidestep the stalled overhaul effort.
The Obama administration's announcement Friday that Washington and Wisconsin have been granted waivers from the education law brought to 26 the number of states now free from many of its requirements.
Allowing waivers has brought a level of creativity to education reform that was unexpected when Duncan and President Barack Obama opened the waiver process nearly a year ago.
Congress could come up with a great plan for reauthorizing the federal law by adopting the best ideas from the states' waiver applications, Duncan said at a news conference Friday.
Lawmakers remain at a stalemate over the long overdue rewrite of the widely criticized law, which was a signature accomplishment of the George W. Bush administration. Obama sent Congress an overhaul proposal two years ago.
Making the law formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act irrelevant is not the Obama administration's goal, Duncan said.
"Our Plan A is to reauthorize. We stand ready to reauthorization if it's on Monday or next week or six months from now," he said.
The Education Department began granting waivers in February in exchange for promises from states to improve how they prepare and evaluate students and their teachers. The executive action by Obama is part of an ongoing effort to act on his own when Congress is rebuffing him.
"A strong, bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act remains the best path forward in education reform, but as 26 states have now demonstrated, our kids can't wait any longer for Congress to act," Duncan said in a statement released Friday.
The 10-year-old law requires all students to achieve proficient math and reading scores by 2014, a goal that many educators say is impossible.
Members of both parties say No Child Left Behind is broken, but they have been unable to agree on how to fix it. While the law has been praised for focusing on the performance of minorities, low-income students, English language learners and special education students, it has also labeled thousands of schools as "failing" because of the stringent ways it measures success.
Critics also say the law has had the unintended effect of encouraging schools to focus too much on testing, leading them to narrow their curricula.
Washington state schools chief Randy Dorn said the waiver will lift the requirement that all students pass the state reading and math tests by 2014. It will also give Washington school districts more flexibility about how they spend some federal dollars.
In return, Washington will need to show improvement in test scores for subgroups of students who have historically had lower scores than average, such as those who qualify for free- or reduced-price meals.
Wisconsin's plan includes an innovative "red flag" system that is triggered when groups of students are failing in a variety of ways beyond test scores, including daily attendance and drop-outs. This system can be activated throughout the school year, to help kids when they need it most, not once a year like the testing requirements of No Child Left Behind.
The federal government also recognized Wisconsin for raising its math and science credit requirements and for shrinking the number of students in each testing subgroup so that the system does a better job of recognizing when disabled students or those in a minority group need extra help.
Other waiver applications are still pending in 10 states and the District of Columbia. Waivers were approved last month in Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota, Utah and Virginia.
In order to get a waiver, each state had to promise to show in other ways that its students and schools are improving, and they were required to more closely link teacher evaluations to student test scores, among other requirements.
Washington's waiver application emphasized its embrace of new national education standards, the state's new teacher and principal evaluations, and its efforts to take a broader look at student achievement beyond reading and math by also testing for writing and science.
The waiver agreement requires that by 2018, Washington cut in half achievement gaps between various ethnic and economic groups, when compared with 100 percent passage rates. For example, if one group had 74 percent passing reading in 2011, that group would need to have 87 percent passing by 2018.
The agreement adds another requirement for Title I schools, which are high-poverty public schools that get extra money from the federal government to help students who are behind academically or at risk of falling behind.
It requires the state education office to annually identify priority schools, which are the 5 percent lowest-achieving of Title I schools; focus schools, which are the lowest 10 percent of Title I schools; and reward schools, the highest performing Title I schools or those making the most progress in a given year.