Feds grant waiver to Alaska on No Child Left Behind law

State hopes it can get one-year freeze turned into a long-term break.

Anchorage Daily NewsJuly 11, 2012 

Alaska school districts are getting a break from the ever-increasing student achievement requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The federal government has given the state a waiver that will allow achievement goals in math and language arts to freeze in place for one year, instead of rising sharply. The Alaska Board of Education still must OK the new plan. It's on the board's July 24 agenda.

Deputy Alaska education commissioner Les Morse says a one-year exemption will give lower-performing schools that are improving a better chance to make achievement targets.

Meanwhile, he said, the state intends to apply in September for a more comprehensive and long-term waiver of many NCLB requirements. If it's approved, Alaska districts would operate in the future under a reform system more tailored to the needs of the state's students, Morse said. The old system would be gone.

The No Child Left Behind law, enacted as a major education reform in 2001, is still controversial.

The Obama administration wants to rewrite No Child Left Behind but Congress has yet to agree on how to fix it.

In the interim, the Obama administration began exempting individual states from certain provisions of the education reform law this year, and more than half the states have already been granted waivers, the Associated Press reported last week.

Under the law, states must set annual targets for how many students will reach "proficient" levels in math and language arts, toward a seemingly impossible goal of 100 percent of students being judged proficient by 2014.

That means in 2014 a new immigrant student just learning English would be expected to become proficient in math and language arts that year, Morse said.

"It's just illogical," he said.

If a school doesn't hit the annual target, it faces consequences. The consequences range from having to create and follow an improvement plan to restructuring that could include turning over operation of a school to the state. Another consequence might be offering parents at under-performing schools the choice of sending their children to a different school.

The federal law let states determine how fast they wanted to ratchet up the annual targets for the percentage of students required to reach proficient levels on state tests.

Some states, including Alaska, chose to start gradually in 2001, increasing targets every three years, said Eric Fry, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Education. But now that 2014 is in sight, those states face steep annual rises in goals.

Alaska's goals for last year were for nearly 83 percent of schools to reach proficiency levels in language arts, and almost 75 percent in math. The one-year federal waiver allows those targets to remain in place for another year.

But the task is still challenging. Only 46 percent of Alaska schools are making adequate progress toward the proficiency goal so far, as of results reported last August.

It's a statewide issue, with both urban and rural schools missing targets. In Anchorage, only 37 of 96 schools made adequate progress under the law last year.

Ed Graff, assistant superintendent of Anchorage schools, said the district supports freezing student achievement targets, as defined by federal rules, for a year. "It gives us the opportunity to focus on what's most critical-- the individual student (growth)," he said.

The Anchorage district is striving for all students to be proficient, Graff said. "I don't know that you can put time limits on that. What we're looking for is growth."

To get a long-term waiver from NCLB, Alaska has to have in place academic standards that are at least equal to the Common Core, a set of voluntary national standards, "which we believe we've done," Fry, of the State Department of Education, said.

Also, student achievement data must be somehow taken into account for teacher evaluations, and the schools have to have rising goals, Fry said, "but not impossible goals."

The state is looking at a plan based on using students' academic growth from year-to-year to determine if enough progress is being made, Morse said. Details are still being worked out.

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at rshinohara@adn.com or 257-4340.

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