Oklahoma's waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act will mean more focus on individual student improvement and an increased flexibility for schools, state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi said.
Oklahoma is one of 10 states that Thursday received a waiver from the federal education law that has measured school achievement for the past decade.
The waiver allows the state to implement a homegrown accountability system for schools.
“We'll be measured by individual growth and success of students,” said Kathy Dunn, executive director of federal programs for the Midwest City-Del City School District. “But we also have the flexibility to serve those students with our monies where the needs are rather than all of the constraints that had been placed on those federal dollars.”
The No Child Left Behind Act required for the first time in 2002 that states implement standardized tests used to measure school achievement. It also introduced penalties for failing schools and prescribed measures for improvements.
“Before No Child Left Behind was law, we were able to mask low achievement and underperformance of some of our kids by using aggregate data, using averages and summarizing what we were seeing,” said Phyllis Hudecki, Oklahoma education secretary. “Students were indeed left behind and falling through the gaps academically.”
But the law was criticized for some of its requirements for testing and closure of low-performing schools. And while Congress has struggled for years to craft legislation to update the law, no bipartisan consensus has been reached on remedies.
The Obama administration's frustration with the law led first to a Race to the Top grant program to encourage broad reforms and then to the decision to grant waivers allowed under the education law.
In remarks at the White House before a group of educators, President Barack Obama said, “Each of these states has set higher benchmarks for student achievement. They've come up with ways to evaluate and support teachers fairly, based on more than just a set of test scores. And along with promoting best practices for all of our children, they're also going to be focusing on low-income students, and English language learners and students with disabilities — not just to make sure that those children don't fall through the cracks, but to make sure they have every opportunity to go as far as their talents will take them.”
In Oklahoma, schools now will be given an “A-F” letter grade based predominantly on whether students show improvement on state tests.
School officials at the Oklahoma History Center on Thursday for the announcement said they were optimistic about the move to a growth measure and more flexibility. But they expressed trepidation about some aspects of the waiver.
Ranet Tippens, superintendent of the El Reno School District, said administrators are thrilled for the new emphasis on student growth, something that will ensure excellent teachers in underprivileged school zones get recognized for how much their student improves.
Tippens cautioned that the state's current exams are not currently conducive to measuring growth.
“Getting a test that reflects growth, that will be a big challenge,” Tippens said. The current state exam is based on grade-level proficiency, rather than on measuring a student's growth.
Barresi said the state is in the process of developing a student growth measure and also will look at implementing benchmark tests for students throughout the year. Now exams are given one time a year in the spring.
Maridyth McBee, interim assistant state superintendent of accountability and assessment, said the state already has developed a way to measure student growth using the current exams and is working toward tying those to teachers.
Of the 10 states that received waivers, Oklahoma's was one of three that came with conditions.
The condition is that Oklahoma fully implements all of the reforms, particularly the A-F grading system, that it proposes in the waiver.
Barresi said her department is in the process of writing the rules for the grading system that was created by lawmakers last year and it will be before the state Education Board in March. The rules will then head to both the Senate and House for approval and finally to the governor's desk.
“We've been very, very careful in writing the rules,” Barresi said.
In a conference call with reporters, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised all 10 of the states that received waivers for laying out thoughtful plans “to empower educators at the local level.” He noted that Oklahoma's application addressed school culture, parental involvement, student attendance, dropout rates and high school rigor.