Instead of using the mandates of the No Child Left Behind law, the Obama administration Wednesday granted New Mexico the flexibility to implement its own school grading program.

State Education Secretary Hanna Skandera called it a "huge first step" in education reform as the state tries to narrow the achievement gap among Latinos, African-Americans and Native Americans.

"It's just a win for us on so many fronts," Skandera said in an interview. "It's a win that we're a front-runner in reform. It's the win that we have our own accountability system that acknowledges success."

The federal school ratings have long been subject to criticism from educators who consider the law too rigid because it takes a pass-or-fail approach rather than measure the progress that students or schools may be making over several years. The system imposes higher student achievement targets each year, making it highly likely that school ratings worsen annually. The federal law calls for 100 percent of students to be proficient in math and reading by the 2013-2014 school year.

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Nearly 90 percent of New Mexico's public schools failed last year to make "adequate yearly progress" under the federal law.

With the federal announcement, the state will switch this year to a system that assigns grades A-to-F to rate the performance of public schools. That grading system, which was enacted in 2011, is based heavily on standardized tests taken by students and on the growth of student performance in reading and mathematics. The first official round of grades will be issued this summer.

To gain a waiver from the federal law's requirements, states had to develop plans showing that they'll prepare children for college and careers, set their own targets for improving student achievement and provide rewards for high-performing schools while offering assistance to struggling schools.

Part of New Mexico's plan requires a new system for evaluating teachers and principals, and a measure to implement that plan is pending in the Legislature. If the bill doesn't pass, Skandera said, the administration will consider whether a new evaluation system can be done through regulations.

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Obama last week announced the first 10 states to be released from the No Child Left Behind law's requirement and federal officials said New Mexico was working to gain approval.

Skandera said one of the last elements for New Mexico was showing the federal government how the state will work with school districts to narrow the "achievement gap" between groups of students. Test results have long showed a big disparity in student achievement among ethnic and racial groups in New Mexico. White and Asian students typically fare better in tests than Hispanics, Native Americans and blacks.

With the federal approval, the state also will have more flexibility in how it can spend about $10 million a year that currently goes for tutoring programs in failing schools and to pay for students in those struggling schools to attend a better public school. Skandera said the state will be able to offer a broader array of assistance to schools receiving grades of D or F, and that also should help rural areas where students currently don't have the option of attending another school because there's nothing available near their community.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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