Federal education officials on Monday approved Maine’s request for a waiver on some No Child Left Behind provisions, allowing the state more flexibility in setting progress goals and benchmarking student achievement.

The U.S. Department of Education has now approved requests from 40 states and D.C., with other applications still pending.

“Forty states and the District of Columbia can’t wait any longer for education reform,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a written statement. “A strong, bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (known as No Child Left Behind) remains the best path forward in education reform, but as these states have demonstrated, our kids can’t wait any longer for Congress to act.”

The Obama administration announced in 2011 it would give No Child Left Behind waivers to states that adopt certain education standards, such as teacher evaluations tied to student test scores. In exchange, states would get flexibility from some of the core tenets of the law, such as that 100 percent of students be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

Currently, 67 percent of Maine’s elementary school students and 48 percent of high school students are proficient in math and reading.

Maine has pledged to cut the percentage of students considered not proficient in half, and achieve a 90 percent graduation rate at Title I schools, which have a certain number of students from low-income backgrounds. The waiver also requires Maine to continue publishing A-F report cards for all schools, which the Maine Department of Education began this spring.

“Maine students deserve high standards, quality teachers and schools that are held accountable for their results,” Gov. Paul LePage said in a written statement. “This flexibility from the federal government’s one-size-fits-all approach allows our state to stay focused on working toward that through the comprehensive reforms we already have under way — rewarding good schools and helping the ones who aren’t doing well.”

State education officials said the negotiations for the waiver centered on the state’s plan to place Maine’s 380 Title I schools into five categories, based on student proficiency and progress.

The categories are: priority, focus, monitor, progressing and meeting. State education officials plan to publish the list in September, and it is expected to show 20 priority schools and 40 focus schools, according to a news release.

Maine Department of Education spokeswoman Samantha Warren said the officials expect “a very close correlation” between the state’s A-F ranking and the new categories.

A-F ranking “ultimately is a more comprehensive accountability system because only it applies to all schools in our state, not just some,” Warren wrote in an email. “And, while the waiver is an important step forward from either making adequate yearly progress or not of the original NCLB, A-F is still the accountability system that we expect the public to find the most value in, simply because everyone understands what an ‘A’ means and what an ‘F’ means, but they may not be able to say the same for ‘priority’ vs. ‘monitor’ schools.”

Using the new tiered system, officials said, the lowest-performing schools would have a school improvement specialist assigned to support them in creating and implementing improvement plans.

“Maine schools will be strengthened by our ability to better target meaningful interventions,” Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said in a statement.

One of the longstanding criticisms of the No Child Left Behind law is that schools can improve their test scores and still not meet the standards because the bar is raised each year.

For instance, more Maine schools made progress in meeting reading and math standards in the 2011-12 school year than in 2010-11, but the number of schools making adequate progress under federal standards dropped considerably. Statewide, only 184 of 608 public schools made adequate progress in 2011-12, down from 276 the previous year.

 

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:
ngallagher@pressherald.com