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State makes its waiver bid

The Colorado Department of Education on Monday filed its formal application for waiver from some provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law, asking for exemption from NCLB’s requirements for Adequate Yearly Progress and for greater flexibility in spending of some federal funds.

The application has been in the works for more than three months, with Colorado among the parade of states seeking waivers from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was modified in 2001 with passage of the NCLB law.

Passage of that law was a landmark event in the first term of President George W. Bush. But in recent years many states and districts have found it increasingly problematic, especially with the approach of the law’s 2014 deadline for universal student proficiency in reading and math, a requirement that’s widely seen as unrealistic.

The Obama administration last year proposed a NCLB overhaul that would shift the law’s focus away from AYP and the 2014 deadline toward an emphasis on new state content standards and college and career readiness for students by the time they leave high school.

But lack of congressional progress in updating the law has raised the frustration level in many states and in the Obama administration, which earlier this year announced the waiver process. On Sept. 14 the State Board of Education approved education commissioner Robert Hammond’s recommendation that Colorado seek a waiver.

Key points of Colorado’s application include:

  • Allowing the state to use its own accreditation and rating system for districts and schools in place of AYP. The state system, created in 2009, basically sets a five-year horizon for the lowest-rated schools and districts to improve.
  • Increased flexibility in using federal funds to target them to a broader selection of struggling schools than is allowed under NCLB.
  • More control over the designation of highly qualified teachers, another part of NCLB that has created problems for states and districts.
  • Flexibility in requirements and programs for English language learners.

Colorado’s application places heavy emphasis on and provides exhaustive detail about state reforms since 2008 as evidence that the state has the tools – in fact has better tools – to reach the broad federal goals of school improvement and closing of achievement gaps.

Here’s how the application puts it:

“The thrust of Colorado’s education reforms of the past three years demonstrates our commitment to the implementation of rigorous college- and career-ready academic standards, strong assessments that measure progress toward high standards, thoughtfully constructed accountability tools, an educator effectiveness program with a formative focus, and the integration of all these components into a meaningful accountability system that targets supports where needed.

“The Colorado system not only delivers the required components, but extends the vision of this ESEA flexibility package in its promise to foster continuous improvement and ensure that all students are college- and career-ready by the time they graduate.”

The waiver application required documentation of public and interest group involvement in the process, which the application details with a lengthy recitation of the consultations and meetings that led up to such reforms as adoption of new state content standards.

Previewing the waiver application for the State Board of Education on Nov. 9, Hammond said, “We have one of the stronger waiver requests” and said he expects a DOE decision by January.

Here’s a rundown of state reforms in the last three years:

  • The 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids required new state standards (which have been implemented), definitions of school readiness and postsecondary and workforce readiness (also done), new state tests and alignment of the new K-12 system with state college admissions requirements.
  • A 2009 reform of the state system for accrediting and rating schools and districts has been implemented, and the second set of ratings will be issued next month.
  • The state also has implemented the Colorado Growth model, which tracks student achievement scores across multiple years to see if kids are improving and also predicts how much growth is needed over time for students to reach proficiency.
  • A new principal and teacher evaluation system became law in 2010, but full implementation is still several years away. And the CAP4K requirement for new state tests may have to be delayed for budgetary reasons.

Hammond has said failure to launch new state tests in 2014 could threaten the effectiveness of the entire reform program.