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Virginia Earns Exemption from No Child Left Behind Provisions

Fairfax County Superintendent Jack Dale praises freedom from 'unrealistic and arbitrary standards'

Virginia schools have received an exemption from portions of No Child Left Behind after the U.S. Department of Education granted a waiver allowing the state to set its own goals for tightening the achievement gap, albeit within certain perameters, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia Wright announced Friday.

The federal government approved a waiver for Virginia, along with four other states, that allows the state to put forth its plan to cut the achievement gap by 50 percent overall and within each student subgroup* within six years. The waiver exempts Virginia systems from NCLB's requirement to close the gap among all students by 2014.

"Virginia schools and school divisions can now focus their energy and resources on implementing the state Board of Education's rigorous new content standards and assessments without contending with outdated and often counter-productive federal requirements and rules," Wright said in a statement. "The commonwealth will continue to hold schools accountable for closing achievement gaps but schools won’t be subject to a system of increasingly unrealistic annual objectives."

Virginia is now one of 24 states to have a waiver. The U.S. Department of Education has 13 more under consideration. 

The state's school systems will no longer receive Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) ratings, though the state will continue to report annual school accreditation ratings based on the Standards of Learning (SOL) program through its own accountability program.

In 2011, about half of Fairfax County Public Schools . At the time, FCPS officials decried the federal standards, stating they did not believe AYP to be a "helpful indicator of school success."

In a statement Friday, Superintendent Jack Dale praised the federal government's decision to grant the waiver to Virginia.

"The unrealistic and arbitrary standards in the NCLB law had become meaningless over time and were not an adequate measure of how schools and students are performing," Dale said. "... Standards are important but we don't succeed well when the standards become punitive and test preparation becomes the focal point of teaching."

While Steve Greenburg, president of Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, also praised the waiver's approval, he warned it would all be for naught if the state Department of Education set its own unrealistic standards.

"I would hope that the ramification of this would be less testing," Greenburg said. "Whatever the state wants to put in place in response to the waiver, I hope it allows classroom teachers to teach more creatively and not teach to the test, and allow more professional autonomy."

To receive the waiver, the state has put a requirement on each school system to alter its teacher evaluations to put more weight on student academic progress.

The new system will rate teachers on student academic progress and six other performance categories, including professional knowledge, instructional planning, instructional delivery, assessment of and for learning, learning environment and professionalism. Student academic progress counts for 40 percent of the overall rating.

At the time, teachers unions, as well as Fairfax County School Board members, expressed trepidation about the new evaluations, particularly for teachers who may be working with more diverse or low-achieving populations.

"We have a genuine fear out there we have to address or we will have a best teacher flight from our neediest [areas] to schools where the population is … less diverse and difficult," member Dan Storck (Mt. Vernon) said at the June 11 worksession.  

The NCLB waiver is separate from the one Fairfax County is pursuing for the . Those schools achieved pass rates of 95 percent or higher in four SOL content areas — English, math, science and history — for the past two years, qualifying them for three-year waivers that would allow the schools to stay fully accredited through the 2014-2015 academic year.

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*The following are the student subgroups, which need to see a 50 percent reduction in the achievement gap to comply with the waiver: 

  • Proficiency Gap Group 1: Students with disabilities, English language learners and economically disadvantaged students, regardless of race and ethnicity
  • Group 2: African-American students, not of Hispanic origin, including those also counted in Proficiency Gap Group 1
  • Group 3: Hispanic students, of one or more races, including those also counted in Proficiency Gap Group 1

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