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Mass. will seek ‘No Child’ waiver, saying rules mark schools unfairly

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / September 28, 2011

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MALDEN - Massachusetts is joining a growing number of states in seeking a waiver from an unpopular provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act that has cast hundreds of schools in a harsh light, a top state education official announced yesterday.

Mitchell Chester, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said the requirement that 100 percent of students be “proficient’’ on state exams by 2014 - a key part of the federal act - has lost credibility as an increasing number of schools and districts fail to demonstrate yearly progress in getting more students to perform at that level.

More than 80 percent of the state’s schools and more than 90 percent of districts missed proficiency targets on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams last spring that the state established under the federal law.

An accountability system that potentially paints so many schools and districts unfavorably - including many with long records of high performance - “flies in the face of common sense’’ and “invites cynicism,’’ Chester told the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education at its monthly meeting yesterday.

He said that he would move aggressively in meeting a November deadline to file a waiver with the Department of Education and that he would seek advice from a range of leaders in developing the waiver application. Any changes would not affect the requirement that students in Grades 3 through 8 and Grade 10 must take the MCAS each year.

“I think we are well positioned and well advised to move quickly on this,’’ Chester said.

The odds of obtaining the waiver seem good. The Obama administration has said states can qualify if they sign on to the president’s education agenda, which Massachusetts did last year when it won $250 million from President Obama’s Race to the Top fund, a competitive grant program.

Yesterday’s announcement generated a mix of jubilation and condemnation.

“I think it’s a good idea,’’ said Paul Dakin, superintendent of Revere schools, which have been struggling under the federal law. “We have the strongest schools in the country, as measured by national tests, but 82 percent of our schools are deemed as failing under [the federal law] - something is wrong with the yardstick we are using.’’

Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said filing a waiver was a “no-brainer.’’

But some education advocates, particularly those with ties to the business community, warned that a waiver would represent a step backward from the state’s long tradition of rigorous academic standards and holding schools accountable for student achievement.

“There’s a general feeling that Massachusetts is backsliding,’’ said Jamie Gass, director for the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, a conservative-leaning think tank in Boston. “I think one of the noble aspirations of No Child Left Behind was setting an ambitious goal for 2014. . . . Whether it’s children or adults, people tend to try to meet the level of expectation put before them.’’

Massachusetts’ waiver effort gained momentum on Friday, when Obama said he would give states a pass on many provisions of the 2002 law, including the requirement that every student - regardless of a learning disability or lack of English fluency - be “proficient’’ in math and English on state exams by 2014. He said the law contains “serious flaws that are hurting our children instead of helping them.’’

The federal law left it up to each state to define proficiency on their state exams. Massachusetts officials decided students must score proficient or advanced, the top two of four scoring categories, on the MCAS.

More than half of the 1,089 Massachusetts schools that missed scoring targets last spring did so because of the performance of one or more student subgroups rather than because of overall student performance.

Schools that repeatedly fall short of testing targets can receive one of three designations - in need of improvement, corrective action, or restructuring - and must come up with plans to address their weaknesses. Remedies range from providing tutoring for students to radical overhauls of programs, teacher training, and staffing. Failure to improve could lead to a state takeover, although Massachusetts has not taken that step.

Under the waiver program, the annual identification of schools along with the mandate for changes would come to an end for qualifying states.

In particular, Obama is looking for states to aggressively overhaul their worst-performing schools, tie teacher evaluations to the achievement of their students, and adopt national standards in English and math that prepare students to be ready for college or a job after high school.

Massachusetts has pursued those three measures within the last year or so.

At the board meeting, Chester addressed some of the criticism that has emerged since he floated the idea of applying for a waiver last month, particularly that Massachusetts would be softening its standards. He noted, for instance, the state will still require high school students to pass MCAS in order to graduate.

“This is not about moving away from accountability for results,’’ Chester said. “I’m not interested in a waiver for letting adults off the hook for student performance.’’

Boston schools Superintendent Carol R. Johnson, who like Chester attended Obama’s press conference Friday, said yesterday that state and local relief from some provisions of No Child Left Behind were long overdue. Most Boston schools have been struggling under the law.

“I think we all want students to be proficient immediately, but . . . I don’t think we can magically get there,’’ Johnson said.

Chester’s announcement came on the same day the education board voted to work toward mandating specialized training for teachers who instruct students who lack fluency in English. Under the motion, Chester will rewrite the state’s regulations in this area and bring back the recommendations to the board next February for a vote.

The move came two months after the Justice Department faulted the state for violating the rights of thousands of English-language learners by not mandating the training.

“We applaud the proactive efforts of the commissioner of education and the board to enact a regulation to ensure that teachers are adequately prepared to teach [English-language learning] students the academic subjects they need to be successful,’’ Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said in a statement. “We stand ready to assist the commissioner in this effort, and know that teachers and school districts are eager for Massachusetts to exert leadership in this area as well.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him on twitter @GlobeVaznis.