By MOTOKO RICH
The Obama administration granted waivers to five more states seeking relief from key conditions of the No Child Left Behind education law on Friday. In exchange, the states agreed to enact new standards and evaluate schools and teachers based on students’ academic progress.
State officials and critics of the 2001 federal law have long complained that it was unreasonable and unrealistic in requiring every student to demonstrate proficiency in math and English by 2014.
Arne Duncan, secretary of education, said the new standards were “ambitious but achievable targets.”
The No Child Left Behind law has been up for renewal since 2007, but Congress has not authorized revisions. Friday’s action by the administration brings to a total of 24 the number of states that have received waivers, and applications from an additional 13 states are under review.
The department’s approval of requests from Arkansas, Missouri, South Dakota, Utah and Virginia on Friday came the week after the federal Education Department declined to approve an application from Iowa, on the grounds that the state had not demonstrated that it would adequately measure teacher performance.
Critics said they worried that the administration was substituting one set of test-based requirements for another.
“I’m concerned that the only waiver applications they are accepting are reinforcing the test-based culture that exist in too many schools,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
But in a conference call with reporters, Mr. Duncan said test scores would make up only one part of teacher and principal evaluations. He said states and districts would look at growth in scores, rather than absolute measures, as well as peer reviews, graduation rates and college attendance rates.
“It’s a much more comprehensive, holistic and honest sense of what folks are doing,” he said.
Kate Walsh, president of the nonprofit National Council on Teacher Quality, acknowledged that establishing a fair and effective system for evaluating teachers was not easy, but was necessary. Federal policy, she said, is not nuanced and often a “blunt instrument.”
She added, “I don’t know how we’re going to get from point A to point B without that chaos.”
Some observers were surprised that Virginia received a waiver because it is one of only a handful of states that have not adopted new national curriculum standards in English and math.
But Patricia I. Wright, superintendent of public instruction in Virginia, said the state submitted its own version of standards that met the Education Department’s requirement for getting students ready for college and careers.
The administration’s waivers emphasized serving students with disabilities, English language learners and students from economically disadvantaged families. Mr. Duncan said that under No Child Left Behind, many of these underperforming students were “literally invisible” because they were not always counted in state reports of academic progress.
Under the waivers, schools can lump together several low-performing groups in one category. Critics said they were worried that as a result, schools would fail to cater to the specific needs of students.
“While you solve one invisibility problem, you might be fostering another,” said James Ferg-Cadima, regional counsel in the Washington office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which advocates for English-language learners.