With NCLB waiver all but dead, state officials look to soften federal sanctions

In a largely overlooked action last month, the California State Board of Education formally designated another 56 local educational agencies as failing as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The move came even as California's long-shot waiver request seeking relief from federal performance mandates sat unresolved before U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan - now nearly six months since the application was made.

If hope has long since faded that the largely non-compliant waiver request would be accepted, state officials are instead moving quietly to do what they can to soften the impacts NCLB sanctions will have on a growing number of communities.

For one, officials said last week, they are looking to deemphasize federal performance benchmarks as part of the evaluation parents, students, teachers and taxpayers should use in analyzing schools and districts. Instead, there will be more and greater emphasis put on the state's accountability tool, the Academic Performance Index - which employs the more widely embraced growth model for expressing changes in performance.

Secondly, the state board will - when possible - look to assign the least restrictive intervention program they can and still meet federal law. This comes as an increasing number of the state's higher performing districts are falling victim to NCLB's almost unreachable student performance standards - including the 2014 deadline for all students to be proficient in reading and math.

As time goes on and the better schools are pulled more and more into federal sanctions - we're going to look to deemphasize the notion that these schools are failing," said Rich Zeiger, chief deputy to state schools chief Tom Torlakson. "We are going to emphasize more and more our state accountability system and we are going to try to get out of their way."

SPI Torlakson reported proudly in October that for the first time more than half of California schools - 53 percent - scored at or above the state's target of 800 on the API.

But in a stark contrast, the state board confirmed last month the sixth cohort of 56 LEAs in California considered failing under federal law.

Since 2008, a total of 338 LEAs statewide have advanced to Year Three of Program Improvement and have been assigned corrective action.

Combined they represent some 3,547 schools.

During the first few years, the federal system captured a majority of the nation's lowest performing districts - most of which needed a lot of help through the intervention process called out in the law.

But because the NCLB escalating performance goals also apply to subgroups - including special education students and English learners - even the best schools nationally have struggled to keep up and avoid being designated as "failing."

The Obama administration recognized this as one of the key flaws with NCLB and offered a waiver option beginning last year that allows states to design their own accountability system with the condition that each adopt college and career readiness standards and implement educator evaluations based in part on student test scores.

So far, 34 states and the District of Columbia have been granted the NCLB waiver.

Fearing the cost of implementing the waiver conditions and without the political will to impose the new teacher evaluation system - the Brown administration along with Torlakson asked for relief from NCLB sanctions but did not commit to the conditions laid out by the Obama administration.

Thus, unless or until Congress and the White House negotiate a reauthorization of NCLB that includes a new accountability function - California schools will continue falling into the failing' category - even those that are otherwise considered successful.

Indeed, 20 of the 56 LEAs that came before the board last month for NCLB sanctioning could boast scores that met or exceeded the 800 target on the API in 2011. Two scored just shy of 900.

There were another 13 that had scores of 750 or better.

Chris Swenson, head of the CDE's Improvement and Accountability Division, said that the API has always been a key component of the evaluation when considering what level of intervention should be applied to a district facing corrective action.

"But with the last two cohorts - cohorts five and six - we really elevated the importance of API in making a recommendation to the board," she said.

As a result, the 13 highest performing LEAs coming before the board last month were assigned the least restrictive intervention program, so-called light.'

Under that designation, districts receive some federal funding but are relatively free to decide how to spend it.

A larger group that went before the board in November, comprised of 37 lower performers, were assigned moderate' intervention. Under this program, districts are required to contract with an outside provider for analysis and intervention services.

None of the LEAs in this cohort were assigned the most serious or intensive technical assistance.

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