Tennessee's No Child Left Behind Waiver

Taking Note May 2012 Examining Key Education Reform Ideas in Tennessee Tennessee’s No Child Left Behind Waiver : A State-Specific Approach to Accountability In February 2012, the U.S. Department of Education granted Tennessee and 10 other applicant states a waiver that provides flexibility under the version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act known as No Child Left Behind. Along with the other waiver states,i Tennessee developed a plan to promote accountability and student achievement that replaces the 100 percent proficiency standard set by No Child Left Behind for all schools to meet by 2014. This brief presents the rationale for Tennessee pursuing a waiver, discusses how the state will ensure accountability under the waiver, and places the waiver in the context of Tennessee’s ongoing public education reform efforts. The waiver represents an important step in Tennessee’s ongoing efforts to improve its lowest performing schools, recognize and reward schools demonstrating success, and enhance the quality of its teachers and rigor of its standards. What is No Child Left Behind? Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), which established the federal government’s role in supporting educational opportunity for historically underserved students, including those from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds and those who are economically disadvantaged. This version of the ESEA requires states receiving federal funds to administer statewide assessments and to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) across identified subgroups of students, including students with disabilities, toward the ultimate goal of 100 percent proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2014. Each state developed its own assessments to administer for the purposes of demonstrating AYP in reading and math, leading to a broad range of assessment rigor across the country. Under NCLB, schools failing to meet their AYP targets for consecutive years must provide supplementary services to struggling students or enable students to enroll in a higher performing school. Why did the Education Department allow waivers from No Child Left Behind? Although the current version of ESEA was due for reauthorization in 2007, Congress has yet to make significant progress on a new approach to educational accountability at the federal level. As 2014 nears, many states have made progress through their work to narrow achievement gaps and promote higher levels of student proficiency. NCLB’s requirement that all schools demonstrate 100 percent proficiency across all student subgroups by 2014, however, has proven burdensome for states and requires penalties for schools not meeting the 100 percent level, even when schools may be making significant progress toward this goal. Upon announcing the 10 initial state waivers, President Barack Obama stated, “…my administration is giving states the opportunity to set higher, more honest standards in exchange for more flexibility.”ii The option for states to pursue a waiver enables them to propose accountability structures that allow targeted intervention in schools with persistent and wide achievement gaps and distinguish low performing schools from those raising levels of achievement for all students. Under NCLB, schools could be penalized in states, like Tennessee, that raised their academic standards to better prepare students for the future. Increasing academic standards has typically led to decreased proficiency results as students and teachers adjust to the increased rigor. Lower test scores then lead to “failure” designations for school communities engaged in the hard work of better preparing students for college and careers. In 2009-10, for example, Tennessee tested students based on the increased rigor of Tennessee Diploma Project standards. As a result, rates of students scoring in “advanced” and “proficient” ranges in math fell from 90 percent the previous year to 34 percent. These rates declined in reading from 91 to 51 percent. By establishing a waiver process, the Education Department can enable states to pursue stronger accountability standards without sanctioning schools that are making improvement gains but have yet to reach 100 percent proficiency for all students. Without the NCLB waiver, approximately 80 percent of schools and 40 percent of districts could be designated as “failing” in Tennessee in 2011-12. Under the waiver, the state can better identify schools in need of support and those making gains in achievement and narrowing gaps. 1207 18th Avenue South, Suite 326, Nashville, TN 37212 — tel 615.727.1545 — fax 615.727.1569 — www.tnscore.org