A report from the Campaign for High School Equality warns that the federal government's free hand with No Child Left Behind waivers could be harming students who are already at the highest risk for being left behind academically. The Associated Press reports that although the waivers were only granted to states that produced alternative plans to reach the benchmarks of No Child Left Behind, it still allowed more than 2,000 schools that have been classified as failing under the federal law to skirt this designation and avoid associated punitive measures.
The group's executive director Rufina Hernandez says that she is worried that the waivers could lead to less support being offered to low-income and minority students. The report looks at the impact the reform plans that have been adopted by 34 states and the District of Columbia that have been granted NCLB waivers by the Obama administration.
The results show students who are at the highest risk of dropping out — those from poor families, students whose native language is not English, those with learning disabilities and minority students — are often no longer tracked as carefully as they were before Duncan began exempting states from some requirements if they promised to better prepare their students for college or careers.
An Education Department spokesman declined to comment on the report.
Previously, Duncan knocked NCLB for being too restrictive and forcing districts to adopt standards for failure that went against their common sense. As a result, many states were focusing on their reform efforts on too many schools, wasting resources that could have been better used in smaller, more targeted number of schools and on a smaller number of really at-risk students.
Specifically, Duncan was referring to the provision that forced school-wide interventions even when only one at-risk subgroup was underperforming.
But the advocates' review finds those in-depth reporting requirements have fallen by the wayside under the waivers. An intervention is no longer automatically triggered in as many as 19 states, meaning those efforts that once were at the center of the law are now optional. In 16 states, student groups are lumped together and treated as one bloc of at-risk pupils, essentially scrapping the reporting of at-risk groups by label.
The waivers make it easier to mask stumbles.
Supporters of the waivers like the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Mike Petrilli believe that this is a feature, not a bug. By allowing states to focus more narrowly on schools that are really falling behind, waivers allow them to better target the students who need help the most.
"The waivers allow states to prioritize. We should be saving the toughest interventions for schools that have low proficiency and low progress," said Petrilli, a former official at the Education Department. "The spirit of the law is to make sure that kids don't get left behind."