State receives federal education waiver for ‘breathing room’

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Written by Whitley Kilcrease

The Alabama Department of Education, like many across the nation, has been granted a federal waiver from the U.S. Education Department concerning seemingly impractical requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

However, unlike the other 26 states granted full waivers, Alabama requested only that the annual measurable objectives (AMOs) be frozen for two years at the 2010-2011 school year standards.

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“This is to give the schools in the state a little breathing room,” Melissa Valdes, public information officer for the Alabama Department of Education, said. “We are still following many requirements, but we are working on new accountability plans that will showcase how much an individual student grows and learns each year rather than trying to reach annual yearly progress (AYP) goals that are unrealistic.”

Valdes said No Child Left Behind intends for all schools across the nation to reach 100 percent AYP by 2014, something many states have deemed unreasonable and unlikely. By freezing the standards at the 2010-2011 numbers, it allows the state more time to implement a new accountability plan that would move towards measuring individual student achievement rather than the group scoring system currently in use.

“The main focus right now is test scores,” said Dr. Mark Head, administrative assistant to the Pike County superintendent. “This allows time to rework our accountability model to incorporate other factors besides test scores.”

According to Head, the current system that produces AYP results can be misleading. For example, a school is separated into different subdivisions, such as ethnicity, special needs and students on free or reduced lunch, as well as academic categories such as reading and math. If a school misses AYP in one of these subcategories, the school as a whole is labeled as failing to meet AYP.

“I certainly think it will have a positive impact, if for no other reason than to bring more balance and meaningful accountability goals,” Head said. “We anticipate that this is a positive move that will allow us to really focus on moving students forward.”

“AYP, unfortunately is tagged as pass/fail,” Valdes said. “It’s become a morale issue for many schools who may be growing and improving, but No Child Left Behind doesn’t reflect that and instead shows a failing school.”

Lee Hicks, superintendent for Troy City Schools, said the impact of the waiver on Troy schools should be the same as the rest of the state.

“We are meeting federal requirements that allowed the state to apply for the waiver,” Hicks said. “We should be getting more information from the state education department later in the year.”

According to Pike County Ssuperintendent Dr. Mark Bazzell, area schools shouldn’t see very much change in the next school year.

“I don’t see it making much of a difference as far as what we do on a day-to-day basis,” Bazzell said. “Our schools have made AYP consistently since No Child Left Behind started and the state developed accountability programs. I like to think we would make AYP regardless of where they set the standards.”

The U.S. Education Department’s website cites 26 states were approved for a full waiver from NCLB requirements while another 10 states, including Washington D.C., have outstanding requests for waivers. Alabama is among the 14 states, including Puerto Rico, which did not requested a full waiver. However, states have the opportunity to apply for the next round of waivers until Sept. 6.

According to Valdes, there are no plans at this point for Alabama to apply for a full waiver or an extension of the two-year freeze on AMOs.

“No Child Left Behind is not functioning as well as when it was first enacted,” Valdes said. “Our state, like many others, is looking at accountability plans. We are focused on a conceptual assessment program instead of focusing on 100 percent goals or pass/fail statuses.”