WASHINGTON – Ten states now have President Barack Obama's OK to scrap one of the most rigorous and unpopular mandates in American education — that all students measure up in reading and math by 2014. In exchange, the states had to promise they would raise standards and develop more creative ways to measure what students are learning.
"We've offered every state the same deal," Obama said Thursday. "If you're willing to set higher, more honest standards than the ones that were set by No Child Left Behind, then we're going to give you the flexibility to meet those standards."
Other states are expected to take him up on the offer.
Some questions and answers about the No Child Left Behind education law:
Q. What is No Child Left Behind?
A. No Child Left Behind is the law President George W. Bush signed in 2002 with the goal of holding schools accountable for the performance of all students, no matter their race, income, English proficiency or disability. Prior to its passage, many advocates said schools were using average scores on tests to hide the poor performance of some groups of students. Supporters of the law said a strong federal role was necessary because states and districts were lax in enforcement. It was passed by Congress with widespread bipartisan support.
Q. What does the law require?
A. The law states that all students must be proficient in reading and math by 2014, which means that they perform at grade level in those subjects. It requires annual testing, and districts must keep a closer eye on how students of all population groups are performing. Schools that don't meet requirements for two years or longer face increasingly tough consequences, including busing children to higher-performing schools, offering tutoring and replacing staff.
Q. Why is the law disliked?
A. A common complaint is that the 2014 deadline is simply unrealistic. Teachers and parents say it has led to teaching to the test. Parents don't like the stigma of sending their children to a school they felt was labeled as a "failure" when requirements weren't met. States, districts and schools say the law is too rigid, and that they can do a better job coming up with strategies to turn around poor performing schools.
As the 2014 deadline approaches, more schools are failing to meet requirements under the law, with nearly half not doing so last year, according to the Center on Education Policy. Center officials said that's because some states today have harder tests or have high numbers of immigrant and low-income children, but it's also because the law requires states to raise the bar each year for how many children must pass the test.
Q. Which states took up Obama on his offer to get a waiver around the law?
A. The first 10 states to receive waivers are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee. The only state that applied for the flexibility and did not get it, New Mexico, is working with the administration to get approval. Twenty-eight other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have signaled that they, too, plan to seek a waiver.
Q. What do the waivers do?
A. The states excused from following the law no longer have to meet the 2014 deadline. Instead, they had to put forward plans showing they will prepare children for college and careers, set new targets for improving achievement among all students, reward the best performing schools and focus help on the ones doing the worst. They also must set guidelines for evaluating teachers and principals.
The current law requires schools to use standardized tests in math and reading to determine student progress. The waivers do not excuse states from those requirements, but instead give them the freedom to use science, social studies and other subjects in their measures of student progress. States with a waiver also can include scores on college admissions exams and other tests in their calculation of how schools are performing. They can be excused from penalties included in the federal law but are required to come up with their own set of sanctions for low-performing schools.
Q. What is the response to Obama's waiver plan?
A. While many educators and governors celebrated, congressional Republicans accused Obama of executive overreach, and education and civil rights groups questioned whether schools would be getting a pass on aggressively helping poor and minority children — the kids the law was primarily designed to help. And when Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, released new legislation Thursday that would rewrite No Child Left Behind, it included a provision that prohibits the education secretary from coercing states into adopting specific academic standards in exchange for a waiver.
Associated Press writer Dorie Turner in Atlanta contributed to this report.
Kimberly Hefling can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/khefling
Education Department on flexibility: http://www.ed.gov/esea/flexibility