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Pa. awaits fate on 'No Child' waiver

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By Megan Harris
Sunday, July 14, 2013, 10:50 p.m.

Parents and students could get a more realistic assessment of their schools' strengths and weaknesses if Pennsylvania succeeds in becoming one of the last states to shed what some call the impossibly high standards of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The Department of Education told state leaders last week it would approve or deny their request by summer's end.

Bulky student subgroups tracked by race and income level would be lumped into small clusters one-fourth their size and monitored instead by students' ability to read, write and solve math problems.

Where data now reflect the progress of 40 third-grade black children at every learning level, educators next year can track two English language learners, four rising from special education courses, three Asians and two black students who started at the same baseline to see how the children progress.

The system was designed to present a more rounded picture, said Carolyn Dumaresq, executive deputy secretary for the state Department of Education. The data educators collect won't change, she said, but its reporting will.

In February, Pennsylvania filed for a federal waiver that would exempt its 501 public school districts from portions of the half-century-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act, last reauthorized in 2001 as a cornerstone of President George W. Bush's education policy requiring 100 percent of students to test proficient or above in math and reading by 2014.

“Well that was never possible, was it?” said Butch Santicola, organizing director of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teacher union. “As long as we're under NCLB, there's a feeling that every school will eventually be on the government's danger list no matter how good they are. No one is perfect all the time.”

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association hasn't developed an opinion on the waiver, according to Publications Director Steve Robinson, but he said school board members “seem like they'd be pretty universally pleased” if the law's 100 percent proficiency mandate disappeared.

“Many of our members believe it's an unrealistic goal to meet,” Robinson said. “So many decisions are in flux right now that leave school boards and administrators sitting around to see how it shakes out.”

While they wait, regional districts including Pittsburgh Public Schools and North Allegheny School District aren't making any preparations.

Explaining the waiver

The number of Pennsylvania districts meeting No Child standards declined sharply as learning targets increased, from 94 percent in 2011 to 60.9 percent in 2012. In the waiver, state education leaders proposed the Pennsylvania School Performance Profile as the basis for a reporting system that Dumaresq called a “nice blend” of federal mandates and existing state policy.

Under the system, states are evaluated based on test scores in reading and math, graduation rates, attendance and test participation. Targets are set for all students and for subgroups whose data are segregated by race, economic disadvantage, English language skills and special education status.

The waiver suggests a more targeted approach to student improvement, she said, by instituting the smaller skill-based subgroups. In the waiver, state leaders pledged to improve student performance by 50 percent in the next six years for all students and specifically within subgroup categories.

A comprehensive website to communicate these figures is set to begin next month.

“This takes the data we were already collecting and puts it all in one place so anyone who wants to look, can,” Dumaresq said. “This is the stuff parents want to know but more: Demographics about the area and what schools are nearby. How many Advanced Placement courses are given? What are the test scores like? And if a school isn't performing, we'll be able to tell it was fifth-grade reading or third-grade math, so we can do better in that area next year.”

Academic achievement and growth each will account for 40 percent of the school performance profile. Graduation rates count 10 percent, and closing achievement gaps for all students and historically underperforming students each count 5 percent.

Schools get extra credit for students who earn advanced test scores denoted by industry standard certifications, Advanced Placement courses and the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams.

A 100-point scale will denote schools earning one of four federal designations — Reward/High Achievement, Reward/High Progress, Focus and Priority — which affect districts' ability to apply for grant money and could elicit further government oversight.

Federal changes to NCLB

Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, visited Capitol Hill last week with a consortium of educators lobbying for a House committee bill when the full House votes next week. In June, Senate Democrats, Senate Republicans and House Republicans introduced three bills aiming to amend the law.

“The Senate approach is all wrong,” Buckheit said. “The House bill isn't perfect either, but it provides states and local school districts with greater flexibility and returns some of that balance between state and federal control.”

Buckheit said his organization “totally supports the waiver request.”

“I wish they'd done something sooner, but it's an important step forward to provide some relief,” he said. “Who knows whether the House and Senate can get together on any issue, even one they both agree needs to be addressed. Right now, this waiver is our best hope.”

Congressional action to reauthorize or replace No Child Left Behind, up for renewal since 2007, would require states to meet new national standards, an arduous notion to the 39 states and the District of Columbia that implemented individualized plans since 2011.

Like Texas, Wyoming, Iowa, Illinois, Maine, Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian Education, Pennsylvania's 550-page application is under review, and success is not a foregone conclusion. Requests filed by Iowa and California were denied in 2012.

Megan Harris is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or

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