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Waiver would change school accountability in Minn.

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota's request for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law shows how state educators would like to switch to a more nuanced system to judge school performance, although there are several hurdles to clear before parents would see a difference.

Educators in Minnesota and throughout the country have long said the nine-year-old law unfairly labels far too many schools as failures based on the comparison of one group of students' math and reading test scores to those of similar groups of students who took the test the year before.

After U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned that 82 percent of the nation's schools could be labeled as failures next year, President Barack Obama outlined a plan in September in which states could apply for waivers to the law in exchange for adopting certain educational reforms. The first deadline was Monday.

In the waiver application filed with the U.S. Department of Education on Monday evening, the Minnesota Department of Education proposed to swap out the current system of school accountability. "We know that several things go into what make a school excellent," said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

Under the plan, schools would still be judged on the proficiency of their students in math and reading — but they would also have to show academic growth in individual students, a shrinking achievement gap between middle-class white students and their classmates and a strong high school graduation rate.

Cassellius said the department would publicize how schools fared by those measures so parents could make better decisions about their children's education. The system would also tag only the bottom 15 percent of schools for reform so the state could focus its resources better.

The waiver application would also lift some existing sanctions for schools that are considered failing under No Child Left Behind. In September, the state Education Department reported that nearly half of Minnesota's 2,255 schools didn't hit the law's benchmarks last year. Those that repeatedly miss the mark have been forced to make staffing changes, and provide free after-school tutors to students and busing to better schools.

The U.S. Department of Education is expected to rule on the first round of application requests early next year. "I think we will get a yes, hopefully," Cassellius said. If not, she said there should be enough time to modify the request and still receive a waiver for the school year starting in fall 2012.

Another hurdle is what's happening in Congress, where both the Senate and the House are overhauling the No Child Left Behind law. The bill that eventually comes out could overrule the changes Minnesota and the other states are proposing in their waiver requests.

When law, which was passed during George W. Bush's presidency with bipartisan support, sought to hold schools accountable for student performance and set a 2014 goal by which all students should be proficient in math and reading. Many educators contend that the 2014 goal is unattainable and that the sanctions schools would face have forced them to place too much emphasis on a few high-stakes tests.

The current bipartisan agreement that Congress needs to overhaul the law is one of the reasons that U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, has spoken out against the waiver program since Obama and Duncan announced it.

"Right now, states facing budget strains are dedicating limited resources to meet new requirements dictated by the secretary of education that could easily be changed by Congress or the next administration," Kline said Tuesday in a prepared statement.

Cassellius said it was worth the risk because the state's schools and the children they educate need relief from the current law. "We just can't wait anymore," she said. "We're mislabeling schools, we're missing some schools, it's just absolutely unacceptable."



Minnesota's waiver application can be viewed at:

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
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