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Nevada gains waiver from federal No Child Left Behind law

Updated Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012 | 6:10 p.m.

Nevada schools have been freed from the rigorous requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

After months of reviews and revisions, U.S. Department of Education approved Nevada’s waiver from the controversial 2001 law, the White House announced Wednesday.

The waiver frees Nevada’s struggling schools from a system of accountability critics argued was too stringent and unattainable, and it paves the way for an alternative accountability system that measures not only how well students perform on standardized tests, but how much they improve annually.

“This is a new day, a new beginning – and a hopeful one – for Nevada,” said Jim Guthrie, Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction. “We are very pleased to be one of almost 40 states receiving the waiver.”

Under former President George W. Bush’s signature education initiative, schools had to demonstrate student achievement in 45 different categories, such as standardized test scores and graduation rates among students of different ethnicities, English-language and intellectual abilities, and socioeconomic status.

Falling short in any one of those categories automatically labeled the school as failing to meet the federal government’s “adequate yearly progress” measure. That bar became increasingly more difficult to hurdle as it was raised annually to meet the law’s mandate that all American children be 100 percent proficient in math and reading by 2014.

During the 2010-11 school year, American schools were supposed to hit the benchmark of 66 percent proficiency in math and 64 percent in reading. The majority of Clark County schools – 61 percent – did not make adequate progress under No Child Left Behind that year.

“We fully appreciate what No Child Left Behind put in place in terms of accountability and concern for youngsters,” Guthrie said. “But one problem was we’re coming up to the 2014 deadline and we just couldn’t meet those deadlines.”

The Nevada Department of Education filed its waiver application in February, five months after President Barack Obama announced the waiver program amid Congressional gridlock over reauthorizing the law.

The administration said states could request exemptions to No Child Left Behind’s rigid, top-down provisions if they develop an alternative accountability system.

With its waiver granted, Nevada joins 32 other states and Washington, D.C., in opting out of No Child Left Behind and returning more local control to school districts, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

“It’s a huge step in the right direction,” Duncan said. “In exchange for the waiver, Nevada has developed a plan to prepare students for college and careers.”

In its waiver application, Nevada proposed a replacement to the accountability system under No Child Left Behind. The new accountability system includes a different method of measuring student achievement, more rigorous national standards and new school and teacher evaluation systems.

This past school year, Nevada instituted the “growth model,” which tracks a student’s academic progress over time. The model has been adopted by 18 states and emphasizes how much a student has improved on standardized tests year over year – instead of by a one-time test score.

Nevada is now entering the final year of a three-year rollout of the Common Core Standards, which have been adopted by 45 states. Proponents argue that Common Core benefits school districts with a high transiency rate – such as Clark County – because the more rigorous curriculum standards are uniform across the country.

To comply with the waiver request, Gov. Brian Sandoval tasked the Teachers and Leaders Council with developing a new teacher evaluation system. The council is expected to present a final report in December, Guthrie said.

The state also is still in the process of instituting a statewide rating system, which would appraise schools on a one- to five-star scale. This performance index would be modeled after a similar ranking system developed in Clark County earlier this year that rewards high-performing schools with autonomy and gives greater support to low-performing schools.

(Although these last two requirements are still in the works, Nevada was granted the waiver under the condition that the school rating system be in place by the end of this upcoming school year, federal officials said.)

Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones welcomed the waiver, adding he looked forward to learning more about how Nevada would implement its new statewide accountability system.

“The community asked us for a system of accountability that was not one size fits all,” Jones said in a statement. “We heard the call and worked with other educators in the state to come up with a system unique to our great state.”

Sandoval also heralded the No Child Left Behind waiver.

“Today is a new day for education in Nevada,” Sandoval said in a statement. “Nevada's (waiver) creates an accountability system that improves student achievement and reflects Nevada's education values and goals. I congratulate and thank the Nevada Department of Education for working with stakeholders to ensure we put Nevada’s children first.”

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