Massachusetts was granted a waiver yesterday of some of the most unpopular provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, eliminating a federal requirement that every student must be proficient in English and math by 2014.
The waiver, which will go into effect for the upcoming school year, was announced yesterday by President Obama. It will dramatically change the way Massachusetts judges the performance of its schools.
The proficiency requirement, which applies to nearly all students, regardless of any learning disability, has long been considered elusive among many educators, and more than 80 percent of Massachusetts schools are poised to miss the 2014 deadline, causing state education officials to lose confidence in the law. Nine other states were also granted waivers.
In place of the law, Massachusetts will require that by 2017 schools cut achievement gaps in half among students of different backgrounds.
The requirement elicited kudos from Obama during his announcement. “I like that goal,’’ he said, according to a copy of his remarks.
Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary, said he was pleased that Massachusetts prevailed in its request for the waiver.
“It’s a relief,’’ Reville said. “We have been dealing with what is widely considered an absolutely broken accountability system. It’s punishing to school districts.’’
Under the 10-year-old federal law, state education officials have been forced each year to designate schools in need of improvement, corrective action, or restructuring, if they repeatedly failed to get more students to demonstrate proficiency on state exams. Most recently in September, Massachusetts officials gave 1,086 schools one of those designations in what local educators have called an annual rite equivalent to a public shaming.
Schools have been identified in urban centers such as Boston, Fall River, and Springfield and even in affluent suburbs such as Andover and Winchester.
The designations have consequences. If a school labeled in need of improvement receives federal grants for low-income students, it must reserve some of that money for parents who want to send their children to special tutoring programs.
In the direst category, restructuring, a school must overhaul programs, classroom instruction, and sometimes staffing.
When that system disappears under the Massachusetts waiver, it will be replaced by one the state created under a 2-year-old state law that aims to accelerate student achievement and that has already led to identifying 40 underperforming schools with chronically low test scores.
“This new system shines a stronger light on schools with the greatest achievement gaps,’’ said Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, who attended yesterday’s announcement at the White House. “The fact the Obama administration is recognizing that we have set a high bar for achievement and won’t be complacent . . . it is a real validation of the work we’ve done in Massachusetts.’’
In urban areas and well-to-do suburbs alike, superintendents across Massachusetts welcomed the waiver yesterday.
“It gives us greater flexibility to establish a way to reach the ultimate target of closing achievement gaps,’’ said Carol R. Johnson, superintendent in Boston, which has dozens of schools identified under No Child Left Behind. “I think using resources in more strategic ways are added benefits. . . . It doesn’t walk away from accountability.’’
Winchester, as in a growing number of affluent districts, had two elementary schools and a middle school identified for improvement last fall because a subgroup of students failed to demonstrate enough progress in reaching proficiency.
“I was very frustrated,’’ said William McAlduff Jr.. superintendent of Winchester schools, as he praised the waiver. “It will fix what I believe is a very broken set of federal rules.’’
But the Pioneer Institute, a conservative-leaning public policy research organization in Boston, viewed the waiver as a step backward for a state known to have some of the nation’s most rigorous academic standards.
“It pushes the goal post further behind,’’ said Jim Stergios, the institute’s executive director. “There is a lack of urgency around accountability.’’
Over the objection of some members of Congress, the Obama administration announced last year that it would offer states flexibility under the most burdensome mandates of No Child Left Behind. Officials were frustrated that Congress has stalled for years on reauthorizing the law.
Massachusetts and 10 other states met a November deadline for the first round of approvals, and all but one, New Mexico, received a waiver. The other states were Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.
“Each of these states has set higher benchmarks for student achievement,’’ said Obama, according to a text of his remarks. “They’ve come up with ways to evaluate and support teachers fairly, based on more than just a set of test scores. And along with promoting best practices for all of our children, they’re also going to be focusing on low-income students and English language learners and students with disabilities - not just to make sure that those children don’t fall through the cracks, but to make sure they have every opportunity to go as far as their talents will take them.’’
US Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a telephone briefing with reporters that his department is working with New Mexico to shore up its waiver request, and approval could come within days.
In the coming months, the administration is expecting more than two dozen other states to apply for waivers.
In order to qualify, the Obama administration required states to enact certain aspects of Obama’s education agenda, such as adopting national academic standards that ensure college and career readiness and creating new evaluation procedures for teachers and administrators that include student test scores.
Massachusetts signed onto the president’s agenda more than a year ago when it applied for and received $250 million from a competitive education grant.
US Senator John Kerry said, “We’ve pushed for this waiver a long time so we can continue to out-innovate other states in education reform.’’
James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com.