AUGUSTA – Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen is optimistic that Maine will receive a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind education law and be allowed to set up a new school accountability system for next year.

After nearly a year of work, the Maine Department of Education submitted its waiver application Thursday — less than an hour before the 5 p.m. deadline.

During a conference call with media Thursday afternoon, Bowen said Maine’s application was still not finished. The 76-page proposal was posted to the department’s website about 5 p.m.

Bowen said his department has been in contact with federal officials, and he thinks Maine will receive a waiver by Election Day, Nov. 6.

“They signaled to us that they were very excited to hear from us, that they were very excited to work with us on this,” he said.

Maine’s plan would end the practices of holding all schools to the same achievement goals and judging schools entirely on the absolute percentage of students scoring “proficient” on tests.

Instead, schools would have their own goals and get credit for year-to-year progress and the growth of individual students.

“It allows us to customize those growth targets based on where a school is at this point,” Bowen said. “Because schools are all over the place.”

Some aspects of No Child Left Behind must remain, such as annual standardized testing and a mandate to close achievement gaps among certain groups of students. But the federal government is granting states flexibility on other elements of the law, particularly the way school progress is measured and categorized.

Thirty-three states have received waivers, and a handful of others are pending. According to news reports, New Hampshire and West Virginia also planned to submit applications Thursday.

Maine officials initially planned to turn in their proposal by a February deadline but decided to take more time to prepare it.

That means Maine schools are still subject to the law’s achievement targets this year, although the state did get permission to use the 2010-11 targets when determining whether schools made adequate progress last year.

Each year, the percentage of students who must score proficient on standardized tests increases, reaching 100 percent by 2014, a standard that no state is in a position to achieve. Schools have failed to keep up with the rising targets, so more each year are labeled as needing improvement and subjected to additional oversight.

Under Maine’s waiver proposal, schools would have to cut the number of students not meeting proficiency by half within six years.

Schools would be sorted into four categories: priority, focus, progressing toward target and meeting target.

Priority and focus schools would have to do self-assessments and create improvement plans, and the Department of Education would provide support to help them improve. Bowen said No Child Left Behind is very prescriptive about interventions for schools that repeatedly miss targets, but Maine’s plan would give them more flexibility.

As the department gathered input about the waiver application last year, educators and members of the public complained about No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on standardized testing.

But the department decided not to incorporate alternative measures of school success, such as discipline data, staff turnover rates or parent, student or teacher surveys.

Most of the factors in the proposed school accountability index are related to standardized test scores, although graduation rate is included for high schools.

 

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan McMillan can be contacted 621-5645 or at:

[email protected]