Georgia gets 'No Child' waiver

As President Obama granted Georgia a waiver from certain provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act on Thursday, some local officials say the move is key for making needed changes in education.

“I think it’s a positive thing for the state,” said James Whitson, the acting superintendent of the Richmond County school system. “Georgia is trying to reform education, and being evaluated on more of a balanced scorecard versus just on a single test is a better measure.”

Georgia was one of 10 states granted a waiver from No Child Left Behind provisions, including the requirement for 100 percent of students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. In its place for the 2012-13 school year, Georgia will implement a College and Career Ready Performance Index, which measures student growth on a variety of indicators.

Carol Rountree, Richmond County’s executive director of student services, called the waiver “exciting,” saying she was concerned about the narrow measurements of No Child Left Behind, including the Adequate Yearly Progress standards that labeled schools as failing or passing based on student performance on one standardized test.

AYP was designed so that a school could be labeled as failing if one student in a certain subgroup, such as a racial group or students with disabilities, didn’t pass the Criteria-Referenced Competency Tests or was absent too many days.

In Richmond County, 30 out of 55 schools failed to make AYP last school year.

The 10 states receiving the waiver no longer have to meet the AYP targets but must set new performance targets aimed at improving student learning and closing achievement gaps between different groups of students.

Georgia’s College and Career Ready Performance Index must recognize and reward high-performing schools while targeting rigorous interventions for the lowest-performing schools. The new design must continue improving educational outcomes for underperforming subgroups of children but will give districts greater flexibility in how they spend federal Title I dollars, according to a White House news release.

As part of the waiver, the Georgia Department of Education will identify Priority Schools, Focus Schools and Reward Schools. Priority and Focus schools will replace current Needs Improvement schools at the end of this school year as the ones targeted for more state assistance because of subpar results on state tests. Reward Schools will replace the current Distinguished Schools designation and will be announced in September.

Although inspiring to educators, the waiver granted by the U.S. Department of Education for Georgia is also conditional.

The state must submit a revised waiver request during the 2012-13 school year clarifying how the performance index will work. If the state doesn’t do this, its waiver expires at the end of 2012-13, and Georgia would again be held to all parts of No Child Left Behind.

The No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2001, came up for reauthorization in 2007, but it has languished since then.

“After waiting far too long for Congress to reform No Child Left Behind, my administration is giving states the opportunity to set higher, more honest standards in exchange for more flexibility,” Obama said during his announcement of which states received waivers Thursday. “Today, we’re giving 10 states the green light to continue making reforms that are best for them. Because if we’re serious about helping our children reach their potential, the best ideas aren’t going to come from Washington alone. Our job is to harness those ideas and to hold states and schools accountable for making them work.”

In September, Obama called President George W. Bush’s signature domestic law an admirable but flawed effort that hurt students instead of helping them. He said action was necessary because Congress failed to update the law despite widespread bipartisan agreement that it needs fixing. Republicans have charged that by granting waivers, Obama is overreaching his authority.

Thomas Koballa, the dean of Georgia Southern University’s College of Education, said components of the law, such as the 100 percent reading and math proficiency expectation, were unrealistic expectations for schools and districts.

He said the College and Career Ready Performance Index will still hold schools accountable but with a more manageable system.

The index will focus on post-high school preparedness and career awareness, although the details of the system are still being determined. Schools will measure students on things like content mastery and will monitor growth from elementary to high school.

“CRCT is given one day in the spring, and that was the sole measure of (student) success or their learning of a year and also of a teacher’s success,” Koballa said. “We’re dealing with multiple populations and to expect every student to achieve success is unrealistic. I think anyone, no matter what their career is, they would hope to be judged or evaluated multiple times.”

Jene Kinnitt, the assistant principal of instruction at Glenn Hills High School, said that although the requirements of No Child Left Behind seemed unattainable for many school districts, they forced educators to focus on subgroups of children they never paid attention to before.

“That made us more accountable,” Kinnitt said. “It caused us to change our instruction. It caused us to differentiate so we could teach all of our students.”

She said the new College and Career Ready Performance Index will be a different kind of pressure for school systems with different focuses. Although the logic of AYP was highly debated nationally, Kinnett said one positive was the accountability it created, which she wants to see continue.

“I like the accountability that came with AYP,” she said. “It made us work, and I want our students to exceed the minimum standards. What I see is our schools trying to get 100 percent of our students to graduation.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Georgia's No Child Left Behind waiver request
Georgia's new accountability system
U.S. Department of Education letter explaining approval of Georgia's waiver

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