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Nevada Raises Stakes in School Accountability With NCLB Waiver

Nevada received a waiver from some of the most rigorous requirements of No Child Left Behind Wednesday, bringing the total exemptions to 33 states and the District of Columbia.

“Nevada joins the growing number of states who can’t wait any longer for education reform, and we’re thrilled that more than 1 million new students will now be protected under these 34 flexibility plans,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a statement announcing the news. “We still remain hopeful that Congress will come together to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but we know states need this relief now.”

The reauthorization of ESEA is more than four years overdue. With the election cycle looming and the deeply partisan mood on the Hill, a resolution isn’t expected anytime soon. In the meantime, the number of states receiving waivers has surged past the halfway mark, and four more — California, Idaho, Illinois and Iowa – are waiting to hear if their requests will be granted. States have until Sept. 6 to apply for the next round.

It’s important to remember that the waivers are not a free pass from accountability. In exchange for being released from some of the law’s requirements the states had to agree to a number of provisions, including use student testing data as a factor in evaluating teacher job performance, and to focus their efforts on reforming the lowest-performing campuses. States must also have a plan in place for extending learning time for students. (For more on this issue, check out a recent report from the Center for American Progress detailing a “troubling lack of detail” as to how the states receiving the first round of waivers planned to comply with the extended learning time requirement.)

Nevada’s waiver is considered conditional until some of the fine print is hammered out to the satisfaction of the U.S. Department of Education. As I mentioned in a recent blog post, in some ways Nevada was harder on itself than other states were when it came to developing its benchmarks for complying with NCLB. Each state was given a fair amount of leeway in designing its framework for meeting the federal requirements, including in how student achievement would be quantified. Each state was required to set hard-target goals for student achievement both overall and by smaller subgroups: race,special education status, non-native English speakers, and students coming from low-income homes. But each state got to decide the minimum number of students that qualified for a subgroup. Some states set a relatively high minimum number for subgroups, making it easier to avoid having to count the test scores for a smaller number of students. Nevada’s subgroup size of 25 turned out to be one of the smallest in the nation, meaning it was holding its schools to an even tougher standard.

So here’s where it gets interesting. As part of its waiver application, Nevada pledged to decrease its subgroup size to 10 from 25. In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, federal Education Department officials praised that decision, saying it would sharply increase the number of Nevada schools held accountable for the achievement of high-need students who might otherwise be overlooked. Of course, balancing that out is the fact that the most punitive elements of NCLB, and the risk that might come with having to report achievement for a larger group of students, disappear with the waiver.

At the same time, the waiver likely will be welcome news in Clark County, the nation’s fifth largest school district. Southern Nevada’s schools have struggled in recent years, first with meeting the needs of one of the fastest-growing student populations in the country (boom) and then the massive budget cuts that came in the wake of the economic downturn (bust). A long-standing complaint had been that NCLB’s inflexible hard-target benchmarks for student achievement didn’t take into account progress made by schools serving high-need student populations. The waiver will allow Nevada’s schools to switch a growth model – adopted by 18 states — which recognizes incremental gains from one year to the next.

On a related note, the Clark County School District opted last month not to pursue a federal Race To The Top grant, potentially as much as $6 million, on the grounds that the money wasn’t worth the accompanying strings that would have been attached. If you’re wondering why anyone would turn down a chance at $6 million in federal dollars in this cash-strapped environment, keep in mind the district’s annual operating budget tops $2 billion.

“My concern is that a grant, once awarded, becomes a contract,” School Board member Erin Cranor told the Las Vegas Sun. “Sounds like selling your soul for $6 million.”

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