Board gives OK to state’s initial No Child Left Behind waiver plan

Fayneese Miller, chair of the State Board of Education. VTD/Josh Larkin

Fayneese Miller, chair of the State Board of Education. VTD/Josh Larkin

Vermont will likely get a reprieve from the No Child Left Behind Act under new rules set by the Obama administration. Gov. Peter Shumlin sought a waiver from the federal law in September; the state has until February to develop a new plan for measuring school performance.

Rae Ann Knopf, deputy commissioner of the Department of Education, told members of the State Board of Education that the federal law had set an “artificially high standard” based on student (and school) performance on a single standardized test.

Without a waiver, 220 out of the state’s 316 schools would be identified as failing schools under the law, which requires that 100 percent of students, including those with learning disabilities, economic disadvantages and who speak English as a second language, meet proficiency standards by 2014.

Under current law, many of those schools – even those that had closed achievement gaps for poor students – would be subject to restructuring plans or corrective action, such as the firing of principals and teachers. The waiver enables the state to avoid these kinds of sanctions.

The Obama administration announced new “flexibility” guidelines for states that are seeking waivers last month. The waiver would allow Vermont to use the less onerous, 2009 adequate yearly progress targets for the next three years. Armando Vilaseca, commissioner of the Department of Education, said between 30 to 40 schools in Vermont would be identified as failing under those targets.

The board on Monday gave the department the authority to develop a plan for executing the waiver requirements. The plan must be approved by the board before it is sent to the U.S. Department of Education. The state must submit a plan no later than February, and Fayneese Miller, chair of the board, emphasized that the sooner the plan is submitted, the more likely it would be accepted by the federal agency without significant changes.

Under the waiver plan the state is developing, standardized tests would be used as one of the measures for student outcomes, but they would be combined with other ways of determining school performance. The Obama administration’s guidelines require states that are seeking waivers to implement reforms that address educator effectiveness, measure student access to good instruction and create systems that enable students who are poor, disabled or speak a second language to close the achievement gap.

The federal waiver requires continued annual standardized testing of students in grades 3 through 8. The state had hoped to limit testing to grades 3 and 7.

The state is developing “school assistance indicators” that gauge “effective instruction and continuous opportunities for professional collaboration; safe and healthy school climates; family and community engagement; skill development in communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity; access to technology; and access to supports for children and families in need.”

The Vermont Department of Education is working with the Vermont-NEA to develop an evaluation system for teachers. Educator evaluation and standardized testing were sticking points for state board members. Bill Mathis, a newly appointed member, was loath to give Vilaseca the authority to submit the plan without the board’s approval.

“I’m not ready to write a blank check,” Mathis said. “I don’t feel we need to be rushed into this like we’re buying a car from a used car salesman.”

Anne Galloway

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