Kansas releases plan for seeking waiver from No Child Left Behind law

Saturday, January 21, 2012 | 4:41 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Kansas schools would no longer face a 2014 deadline for ensuring 100 percent of their students are faring well on state tests under a waiver the state is seeking from the federal No Child Left Behind education law.

After congressional efforts to change the law failed to win approval, President Barack Obama told states last fall they could seek a waiver around the unpopular proficiency requirements in exchange for actions his administration favors. A vast majority of states have said they will go that route, seen as a temporary fix until lawmakers do act.

Pressure to make changes had been mounting because the percentage of students required to meet grade-level standards is increasing rapidly each year as 2014 approaches. Schools that chronically miss annual targets and receive federal Title I funds for serving children from economically disadvantaged families are required to take aggressive actions such as firing their principal and half their staff.

On Tuesday, the Kansas State Board of Education authorized the Kansas State Department of Education to request a waiver in February. The state is seeking public input on the newly released plan. An earlier Kansas waiver request was denied in May, but that was before the Obama administration described what states need to do to opt out of some of the education law's demands.

Deputy Education Commissioner Brad Neuenswander said people have long talked about how unrealistic it was to set a 100-percent performance target.

"That's like having 100 percent attendance, 100 percent health," he said. "What we are wanting to move toward is setting ambitious but yet attainable measures instead of keep ramping it up to 100 percent."

Under Kansas' waiver request, schools could show progress in three ways:

  • Prove achievement through an index that awards points for pushing students to a higher level on a five-part scale that classifies performance as exemplary, exceeds standard, meets standard, approaches standard or academic warning.
  • Demonstrate growth by increasing test scores of individual students from one year to the next. The state would examine up to four years of testing data.
  • Close the gap between the lowest-performing 30 percent of students and highest-performing 30 percent of students. Achieving success this way would have nothing to do with whether the low and high achieving students are part of a minority group, poor, non-native English speakers or disabled. The state, however, would continue to monitor the performance of those subgroups.

The state would focus federal resources on the most troubled schools that receive Title I money. Almost half of Kansas schools receive those funds. The highest priority group would be the 5 percent of Title I schools with the lowest student performance and the least academic growth. The next focus would be the 10 percent of Title I schools with the widest gaps between the highest and lowest performing students.

Kansas officials would evaluate the schools and recommend a plan that could include pay incentives for effective staff, extra training, replacing the principal and making teachers reapply for their jobs. The troubled schools would be required to begin implementing the improvement plans in the 2012-13 school year.

Schools that are struggling but aren't part of the bottom two groups would be required to pursue "ambitious but achievable targets," Neuenswander said. The state also would recognize the top 10 percent of Title I schools. Potentially, staff at the high-performing schools could be allowed to mentor staff at struggling schools.

The changes come as the state prepares to switch in the 2014-15 school year to a different set of tests based on something called Common Core State Standards. The state-led initiative aims to establish a uniform set of expectations on what students should know by the time they graduate high school. Current standards vary widely from state to state.

As part of the waiver, Kansas schools also would be required to use student test scores in evaluating teachers and administrators by the 2014-15 academic year. The state is piloting an evaluation system and plans to involve the Kansas National Education Association as it determines details such as how much weight should be given to test scores and how to evaluate teachers of non-tested subjects such as art and music.

There are no plans to publicly release data linking test scores to particular teachers, Neuenswander said.

"Most districts now already look at student achievement," Neuenswander said. "It is just another piece of data to be able to look at the effectiveness of your teachers."

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