Hall pass: Alaska schools waiting to be excused from No Child Left Behind

The state of Alaska next month will ask the federal government to approve new education standards to replace the so-called No Child Left Behind program.

The state has requested a waiver from the federal law, which has vexed educators for a decade. State education officials are now in the process of adopting new assessments to replace Adequate Yearly Progress.

Alaska’s Adequate Yearly Progress report for the 2011–12 school year came out earlier this week. Once the waiver is approved, Alaska will no longer have to meet AYP as defined by federal law, says Eric Fry, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

“If we’re granted the waiver, this upcoming school year would be the last year which we follow the AYP system. That would go away and we’d have our system, which would have to be approved by the federal government,” Fry says.

Under federal law, a school fails to meet Adequate Yearly Progress if it falls short in just one category. Schools also are not recognized for annual improvements. Fry says the accountability program Alaska is designing would treat each school individually.

“One of the things people didn’t like about the law is that it seemed a draconian way of dealing with schools that might be doing rather well, but are falling short in one or two areas,” Fry says. “In the draft proposal that we’ve put together, all of that would go away and instead we would ask schools to aim toward reducing their non-proficient students by half over a six-year period so each school would have its own target based on where it’s starting now.”

Schools would be ranked on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest. Fry says each level would be marked by a star.

“And so the public would see very quickly how their school is doing. And if schools are stars 3, 4, or 5, they’re doing rather well, so we would ask them to look at their students and see if they have achievement gaps: Are there subgroups of kids who are not doing as well as other groups, such as low-income students, or students with disabilities? Then the districts would have to work with their schools on improvement plans,” he says.

The lowest achieving schools in Alaska number about 60, Fry says. The state education department would step in to work with the districts to raise the achievement levels in each poorly performing school.

“At any given time the state might be actively working with the districts on maybe the 50 to 60 lowest-performing schools,” he says. “Meanwhile the districts wouldn’t be off the hook for helping non-proficient students, but you wouldn’t have this draconian system of consequences that are triggered by any little thing, and you wouldn’t have the same consequences no matter what the real situation is on the ground. So we think of it as a more realistic system of accountability.”

Before the U.S. Education Department will waive No Child Left Behind requirements, the state has to show that Alaska standards for reading, language arts and mathematics will prepare students for college and a career. The state Board of Education recently adopted such standards. Fry says the board believes federal education officials will approve Alaska’s standards.

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