Kansas got a hall pass Thursday to skip its toughest test yet in complying with No Child Left Behind.
The U.S. Education Department has formally approved a request first made by state education officials in February. The request gives Kansas a pass on the federal education act requirement that students reach state-set proficiency standards for reading and math by 2014.
Virtually all U.S. schools have been required to work toward the standard since the No Child Left Behind act – proposed by former President George W. Bush – became law in 2002. Most have brought larger numbers of their students up to that standard each year, but Kansas and 31 other states protested, saying the final goal – 100 percent compliance – was impractical.
Federal officials agreed and Thursday granted that request.
With one condition.
Kansas still must come up with a way to measure teachers’ and principals’ performances to meet federal standards.
Kansas is working on that, said Diane DeBacker, the state’s education commissioner. The prototype for a new plan will be field tested this year and implemented statewide in 2014 as part of what’s called the Kansas Educator Evaluation Protocol or KEEP.
“I’m pleased we’ve been given flexibility to use other multiple measures of student growth,” DeBacker said. “I believe it will result in a far more meaningful assessment of our progress.”
Kansas’ coming plan, both for providing better education for more students and for evaluating teachers and principals, will focus on bringing poorly performing schools and students up to state standards faster without relying on standardized tests, as the No Child act requires, she said.
Peg Dunlap, director of instructional advocacy with the state’s largest teachers union, the Kansas National Education Association, welcomed the ruling, as well.
“I think it’s a very good deal that the U.S Department of Education recognized that it will take the whole coming school year to put these plans in place,” Dunlap said.
Some skeptics of Kansas school-reform efforts say they still have questions about the federal decision.
“Meeting the federal requirement for evaluating teachers and principals is a big deal,” said Sandi Jacobs, a state education policy specialist at the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocate for a variety of educational reforms.
It isn’t clear what happens if Kansas, or any of seven other states with similar conditional approvals, fails to make its pledged improvements, Jacobs said.
“We don’t know what would happen,” she said. “I mean, it’s not like a grant where you can ask for money back.”
Thursday’s waiver fails to address a problem that Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute in Wichita, sees with Kansas’ school policies.
Trabert contends that the standards for proficiency – the basic yardstick for achievement in the federal law – were set too low when the Kansas State Board of Education last revised them in 2006.
Proficiency as it is now defined in Kansas school policy doesn’t require that students fully understand books they read or math problems they work at their respective grade level, Trabert said.
“If they do fully comprehend grade-appropriate material, that’s defined as advanced, which is higher than proficient,” he said.
“Kansas schools have some of the lowest standards in the country,” Trabert said.
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