Friday's announcement from the White House that five more states will receive waivers from some requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act gave educators in Missouri and elsewhere reason to finally breathe a sigh of relief, but local school officials say accountability for student achievement is still a top priority.
Missouri will be allowed to use a state-only accountability system known as the Missouri School Improvement Program now that a waiver has been granted, and according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, more accurate reports of student achievement will emerge. Schools were previously held accountable to the Missouri School Improvement Program and federal requirements of No Child Left Behind.
States were given the opportunity to apply for waivers to the law in 2011, and have been granted by the U.S. Department of Education in two rounds so far. To be granted a waiver, states had to set college and career-ready expectations for all students, have state-developed differentiated recognition and accountability and support for effective instruction and leadership.
Eighteen percent of Missouri schools met proficiency targets set by No Child Left Behind in 2011. In Southeast Missouri, only five of 18 districts in Bollinger, Cape Girardeau, Perry, Scott and Stoddard counties met all targets for adequate yearly progress in communication arts and math as determined by Missouri Assessment Program testing.
Since 2002, targets for student achievement rose every year under No Child Left Behind, and so did challenges for educators. Across the country, cheating on standardized tests was revealed as the pressure to do better climbed and more and more schools and districts were hit with government sanctions. School choice was allowed, funds were locked into use for specific purposes and teachers faced accusations of spending too much time "teaching to the test."
Now, some flexibility.
"We're excited," said Sherry Copeland, assistant superintendent of the Cape Girardeau School District. "But this definitely doesn't mean we are getting off the hook when it comes to accountability, and we don't want to."
The state's waiver will take effect in the upcoming school year and implements higher academic standards, creates one accountability system, gives Title I schools more spending flexibility, focus on school improvement and improve evaluation of teachers, according to DESE.
Missouri is using the fifth cycle of the Missouri School Improvement Program to meet waiver requirements, which is a state-led program that has been in use for more than 20 years and promotes student achievement through various strategies and interventions.
The waiver won't change Missouri's standards for academics or its approach to making sure all students can meet them, according to DESE. What it will change is the way the state will measure schools' abilities to help students meet the standards. Schools will be asked to identify areas where improvement is needed and focus resources on those areas. Title I schools will be categorized as a "reward, priority or focus" school, based on state-compiled data from the 2011-2012 school year. Designations for individual schools will be released this fall, and strategies to increase achievement will depend on a school's designation.
Copeland said the effect of the state receiving the waiver will be seen in several Cape Girardeau schools designated as Title I schools, including four of the district's five elementary buildings, the middle school, junior high and high school. Under No Child Left Behind, those schools were restricted to using 20 percent of funding received through Title I for specific services. Those services in Cape Girardeau, Copeland said, weren't producing positive or intended results when reviewing data, however.
A stigma attached to many schools as "failing" because diverse student populations at some schools weren't consistently meeting federal requirements may also begin to fade, Copeland said. School choice as allowed by sanctions when schools continually failed to meet standards didn't help, she said.
"If you ask me, all our elementary schools are good, and the same, and always have been," she said. "Not one was ever better than another but people still believed that."
In Jackson, superintendents said they will be closely examining how the waiver flexibility will affect the district. Superintendent Ron Anderson said he was looking forward to participating in a webinar about the new flexibility hosted by DESE this week.
Other states that received approval for waivers Friday included Arkansas, South Dakota, Utah and Virginia. The waivers will remain in place for three years.