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Before The Waiver, A Rigid Law

At Disnard Elementary School in Claremont last week, classroom aide Kathy Erskine looks over work that Anthony Baker, left, and Gabriel Wyman were doing in reading groups. Small groups are emphasized as the school tries to improve student performance.

At Disnard Elementary School in Claremont last week, classroom aide Kathy Erskine looks over work that Anthony Baker, left, and Gabriel Wyman were doing in reading groups. Small groups are emphasized as the school tries to improve student performance.

To understand how New Hampshire’s flexibility waiver under the federal No Child Left Behind Act works, it helps to look first at the original rigid law, under which Vermont schools still operate.

Signed into law in 2002, NCLB mandated state education standards and annual school tests. The results of those tests were meant both to hold schools accountable for student learning, and to provide educators with data to assess how best to change instruction, curriculum and other factors that influence how children learn.

Each year a higher percentage of students must be proficient or better in the skills and concepts on the tests. Schools that don’t meet the “adequate yearly progress” or AYP targets for two years in a row are labeled “schools in need of improvement” and school officials are required to draw up improvement plans. If AYP isn’t met for four years in a row, the schools face “corrective action,” which can include replacement of staff. Parents of children in such schools are also allowed to seek placement in other schools in the same district.

Over the years, as schools were expected to have higher percentages of their children score “proficient” or better, more schools failed to meet the target. Last month, Vermont’s Agency of Education announced that 81 schools made AYP, but that 214 schools have been identified for improvement in one or more areas.

Under NCLB, not only must a school’s total population reach the yearly target, different subgroups of students must do so as well. For example, students of low socio-economic status, special education students and students who are learning English must also make the grade. Failure to do so in any one of those areas means failure to make AYP, which leads to the “in need of improvement” tag.

New Hampshire sought a waiver as the number of schools failing to make AYP climbed. With the waiver, schools are no longer labeled as “in need of improvement” and the school choice provisions are moot. Rather than target every school, the state Department of Education will work most closely with 47 schools.

The 24 schools with the lowest test scores have been labelled “priority schools” and an additional 23 schools that have struggled to close the gap between certain groups of students and the general population have been identified as “focus” schools. All of the priority and focus schools receive federal Title 1 funding based on their percentage of low income children.

According to documents on the state Education Department’s website, the state plans to target more aid to the priority and focus schools, mainly in the form of professional development. The schools are also required to make changes to their “instructional day” to allow for more small group and one-on-one instruction. There is relatively little new funding under the waiver, school officials said.

To exit the priority or focus designation, schools need to show improvement on the state tests, and under each year of the two-year renewable waiver the state is required to name 5 percent of Title 1 schools to the priority list and 10 percent to the focus list. Priority schools must stay in this designation for three years, but focus schools can exit by posting a year of improved test scores that show at least a 50 percent reduction in achievement gaps.

It’s unclear how long the waiver will remain in force. A new federal education law would pre-empt the waiver. Reauthorization of No Child Let Behind is long overdue, but the U.S. House and Senate released competing bills earlier this summer and negotiations have stalled.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.