Emphasis on test scores maybe in the past for the Oakland Unified School District, which along with eight other California school districts has sought a waiver to opt out of the federal No Child Left Behind performance standards. In February, the California Office to Reform Education (CORE), a group of nine school superintendents who represent more than a million students from Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, Sacramento, Santa Ana, Sanger and Clovis, announced that they were seeking waivers from the performance standards outlined under No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
Backed by former President George W. Bush, the original law passed in 2001 with bi-partisan support. It raised performance standards and required all students to be working at grade level in math and English by the year 2014, requiring states to bring all students up to set proficiency levels on state exams. The law required every teacher in those core content areas to be certified and demonstrate proficiency in each subject area they teach.
While some praised No Child Left Behind because it forced schools to become more accountable for the education of poor and minority students, critics countered that it placed too much emphasis on standardized testing, “teaching to the test,” and said that it set unrealistic teaching goals.
“We want to establish an accountability system based on a wider range of metrics than those contained in NCLB—specifically, instead of evaluating school and district performance by strictly academic measures,” said OUSD spokesperson Troy Flint. “The waiver request is driven not so much by objections to NCLB, although it’s a flawed bill, as by a desire to pursue a more comprehensive approach toward caring for children and developing their strengths.”
In 2012, President Barack Obama used an executive order to allow states to seek waivers from the standards if the state could provide a comprehensive plan that would improve education for all students. To date, 44 states have applied for waivers, while 34 states have been approved for waivers. Typically, most states have filed for a waiver for the whole state, but federal law does allow for individual districts to file their own applications.
Last year the U. S. Department of Education rejected a waiver application from California because the state was unwilling to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores.
If granted the new waiver as proposed this year, new performance standards for the nine California school districts could be implemented. The new proposal aims to create three new tiers of schools which would include “schools of distinction,” “priority schools” and “focus schools.” The new system would allow teachers from schools of distinction to mentor teachers in priority and focus schools who have similar student populations.
In a letter to US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in February CORE officials wrote that the school districts planned to “meet multiple measures of student success – and to mutually hold themselves and each other accountable if students are falling short.”
The letter states: “Under CORE’s new accountability model, only test scores from the highest grade level of each individual school will be used for the purpose of accountability. It does this to emphasize that a school is ultimately responsible for ensuring that students leave their institution ready to matriculate to the next level and removes possible sanctions based on test scores from every grade level. As a result, CORE’s model focuses the use of most grade-level assessments to diagnostic use.”
“CORE’s proposed system would also assess progress in other areas, such as reducing disparities in student discipline and rates of absenteeism,” added Flint.
In an email, OUSD School Board President David Kakishiba wrote that if the CORE waiver was accepted by the Department of Education, Oakland’s school district would have to draft a memorandum of understanding with CORE regarding the plans, and then the Oakland school board would have to approve it. “I do not know if the U.S. D.O.E. will grant CORE’s waiver application, but there seems to considerable national buzz about the application,” he wrote.
If the waiver is granted to the nine districts, $110 million in federal funds that has been redirected to other uses because schools are not meeting federal performance benchmarks for student advancement would now become available to the districts.
For now, the nine districts will have to wait until May or June about the status of the application. If the waiver is granted, new changes could be implemented as early as next school year.