WASHINGTON Arkansas is one of five states that have been granted relief from key requirements of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, bringing the total to 24 states given waivers, an Obama administration official said Friday.
Missouri, South Dakota, Utah and Virginia were also freed from the No Child Left Behind requirement that all students test proficient in math and science by 2014, a goal the nation remains far from achieving.
In exchange, the states and all others granted waivers must develop accountability plans that set new targets for raising achievement, advancing teacher effectiveness, preparing all students for careers and college, and improving the performance of low-performing schools.
“This flexibility allows Arkansas to evaluate schools in terms of performance, growth and graduation rate,” Arkansas Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell said in a statement. “We are not turning our back on accountability. With our new system of accountability, support and intervention, we will focus on specific problems unique to each public school in Arkansas.”
Democrats and Republicans agree the No Child Left Behind law is broken, but have been unable to agree on how to fix it. The law has been praised for shining a light on the performance of subgroups like minorities, low-income, English language learner and special education students, but also has led to an increasing number of schools being labeled as "failing" and subject to a prescribed set of interventions — even if just one of these groups didn't meet learning targets.
Critics of the law also say it has had the unintended effect of encouraging instructors to teach to the test and has led schools to narrow their curriculums.
The five states approved for waivers Friday were among 26 states that submitted requests for flexibility in February. The Education Department announced waivers for eight of those states in May. Another 13 are still under review. Waivers for the first 11 were granted in February.
"We all understand that the best ideas don't come from Washington, and moving forward, these states will have increased flexibility with federal funds and relief from NCLB's mandates, allowing them to develop locally-tailored solutions to meet their unique educational challenges," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in draft remarks released to The Associated Press.
Duncan and the White House have pushed for a comprehensive reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but there has been little movement in Congress over the past two years. After Duncan warned that 82 percent of schools could be labeled "failing" — a figure many said was inflated, but nonetheless agreed to be rising — the Obama administration announced last year that states could apply for waivers. Republicans have charged that the president with overreaching his authority and imposing his vision for education on the states.