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State files No Child waiver with US

Seeks more leeway to attain new goals

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / November 15, 2011

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Nearly a decade after the passage of the No Child Left Behind law, Massachusetts moved yesterday to replace some of its strictest provisions with a more flexible system that would require the state’s public schools to show steady improvement over the next six years.

The state’s proposal would give schools more latitude to reach academic goals than the 2002 No Child act, which has been praised for focusing on struggling students but criticized for unfairly labeling solid schools as sub-par.

The plan calls for schools to cut in half the rate of students failing to reach proficiency in English, math, and science on standardized tests by 2017. Schools that consistently fall short would face stricter state oversight.

By comparison, No Child called for all students to reach proficiency in math and English by 2014.

Critics panned the proposed shift as a retreat that would let schools off the hook and erode hard-won progress at long-troubled schools. But proponents said the change would maintain high standards while providing a more accurate picture of overall school performance.

“We will flag schools with the greatest achievement gaps,’’ said Mitchell Chester, the state’s education commissioner. “We will call them out.’’

The 85-page plan was submitted to the US Department of Education yesterday. Federal officials are expected to grant the waiver that would make it official, and the plan would take effect next school year.

Although the state is seeking a reprieve from federal standards, the new proposal shares many of the law’s aims and would continue its emphasis on testing and identifying those schools where performance lags. The MCAS would still be the primary measuring stick.

Many educators have chafed at the federal measure, calling it punitive and unrealistic, and say the broad rebukes are akin to crying wolf. Based on the most recent round of MCAS results, for instance, more than 90 percent of Massachusetts school systems missed requirements under the federal law.

“It creates much more noise than signal,’’ Chester said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., where he was briefing US officials.

State officials, however, noted the difficulty of their goal. Over the past six years, the proposal stated, just 16 percent of Massachusetts schools reduced their proficiency gaps in English by half, while 19 percent did so in mathematics.

The Massachusetts proposal would usher in a new system that builds on accountability measures approved in last year’s sweeping effort to overhaul state education rules. Since the law, the state has tapped 34 schools with chronically low test scores for overhauls, and early returns have shown appreciable gains.

Of those schools, 25 raised math scores on the latest round of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, and 23 improved in English, according to a recent report by the Boston Foundation.

Last week, Governor Deval Patrick announced four initiatives aimed at bolstering struggling urban districts, including a kindergarten literacy program to ensure that students are proficient readers by the time they reach Grade 3.

The new assessment system would consider more than just student MCAS scores in judging school systems and individual schools. Among many factors, it would also weigh how much students improve, how many score in the advanced category, and how many drop out of high school.

Supporters said adjusting the federal requirements to more achievable levels would help identify the schools most in need.

“Some folks say this is a retreat,’’ said Matthew Malone, superintendent of Brockton schools. “But I see this as an attack, just in a different direction. We’re still going to hold all systems accountable for all kids; we’re just doing it in a way that’s much more nuanced.’’

But critics said the relaxed standards would reduce the urgency around bringing all students up to speed.

“This looks like it pushes back the date and halves the expectations,’’ said Jamie Gass, who directs the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute.

Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, said he opposed the waiver request, saying the current standards are paying dividends.

“I wouldn’t want to abandon or seek a waiver from the standards that are working well,’’ he said. “It’s a disservice to students.’’

Jill Norton, who directs the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, said the law would still hold schools responsible for giving all students a solid education, but without labeling so many as lacking.

“It’s not a good diagnostic tool as it now stands,’’ she said. “It doesn’t give you enough information as to where the real issues are.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globepete.