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Are No Child Left Behind Waivers Really Giving States Flexibility?

Published:  July 17, 2012

As of July 6, the U.S. Department of Education has granted more than half of states waivers from the most punitive provisions of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.  The Obama Administration is issuing the waivers to address unworkable parts of the 2002 law as key deadlines near and a legislative solution is unlikely. States granted waivers will no longer be subject NCLB’s accountability rules and must instead meet their own benchmarks for student achievement. However, the Obama Administration is taking steps to preserve a key piece of NCLB that has made it harder for schools to hide their lowest performing students – the reporting requirements.

Under No Child Left Behind, states were required to report to the Department of Education’s internal EDFacts system a wide array of data, including student performance by subgroups (racial/ethnic minority students, economically disadvantaged students, English language learners, and students with disabilities), as well as the subgroups’ performances against each state’s annual measurable objectives (AMOs), or state-defined proficiency targets. The Department announced in late May that it plans to keep this system in place and create a duplicate system to capture each state’s self-proposed accountability benchmarks. That will be no small feat for the Department of Education.

A recent Education Week article stated that state and school districts officials who gathered in Washington, D.C. for the annual STATS DC conference on data collection were clearly surprised by that news. It means that instead of lessening the load of data reporting those state officials are required to compile each year, the (voluntary) waivers have doubled their work.

States that have received waivers will have to report state, district, and/or school data in 22 more categories – the flexibility version of existing categories. And although each state hammered out the specifics of its waiver in close consultation with the Department of Education, the EDFacts system lays out only eleven categories into which states are expected to squeeze their own particularly-defined subgroups. That may require some extra calculations on the part of state officials who will have to calculate and recalculate state figures so they match both the federal and state definitions of subgroups.

The Department also calls on states and schools to collect all of the new flexibility data for three years, although the waivers are only valid through the 2013-14 school year. That begs the question: Is the Department using the waivers, as it says it is, as a stopgap measure until Congress takes on the long-delayed ESEA reauthorization originally scheduled for 2007? Or does the three-year data requirement suggest it will extend the waivers down the line?

Still, maintaining the strong reporting requirements set forth in No Child Left Behind will help preserve one of the law’s biggest achievements. In maintaining the existing reporting categories and adding in the new waiver-based ones, the Administration is ensuring ten years’ worth of data on student performance retains its relevance and can be compared to future data. Although the Department required that states set clear subgroup definitions on their own to win a waiver, holding onto the current reporting format ensures one thing: No school will be able to conceal a subpopulation’s failures, simply to protect itself.

The Obama Administration billed the NCLB waivers as a way for states to escape some of the punitive and unworkable measures of NCLB. States are now likely to accuse the Administration of a bait-and-switch given the data collection rules. But in spite of the added work, the Department of Education’s data process is ensuring transparency and openness from the schools that fail to serve many of their students well.

The Federal Education Budget Project, Ed Money Watch’s parent initiative, houses many of the state- and school district-level data that states report to the Department of Education in its database. Click here to view the data.

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