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W.Va. gets No Child Left Behind waiver

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia is the latest state to be granted a waiver by the U.S. Department of Education that relieves schools from federal rules associated with the No Child Left Behind Act introduced more than a decade ago.

That means the state will now use its own unique accountability system to identify struggling schools. West Virginia's system will focus more on individual student academic growth and offer more local control, as well as move forward with more challenging standards to ensure career and college readiness for students, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said at a press conference Monday.

"This means the federally mandated, one-size-fits-all approach to academic success will no longer hinder our schools' performance," Tomblin said. "Teachers will decrease their time invested in federally required paperwork and instead invest their time and efforts in what they do best ... to provide the best education for our kids."

Former state Superintendent Jorea Marple requested the waiver from the federal government last year. West Virginia is now one of 37 states that has been approved for the waiver, which shifts the focus from students performing at grade-level for math and reading -- the cornerstone of the Bush-era law -- to making sure students are ready for college or a career. Only three states have not requested to be exempt from the No Child Left Behind regulations.

The Obama administration first allowed the flexibility waiver option to states in 2011.

School board President Wade Linger said Monday the state's new system "will be envied by the entire country, if not the world."

The state's focus will no longer be on whether schools have or have not met Adequate Yearly Progress -- how the Department of Education measures student achievement based on standardized test results -- but instead, schools will be monitored by a new, more targeted system called the West Virginia Accountability Index.

The WVAI identifies schools as one of five statuses: priority, support, focus, transition and success. The state Department of Education will also now provide an annual performance report "that provides a more complete and comprehensive picture" of schools' progress.

Education officials have already flagged 32 schools across the state as "priority schools," meaning they have persistently low test scores and will receive "extra resources and funds to improve," according to state Superintendent Jim Phares. That list of schools will be released later this week.

Schools will be labeled as "focus schools" if they exhibit major achievement gaps between students. "Support schools" are those that may exhibit progress, but have a majority of subgroups not on target.

"Students, teachers, parents and administrators will understand this rating system better. This waiver was established through a series of stakeholders' meetings, which included teachers and principals ... It's our system rather than someone else's," Phares said. "It fits West Virginia and isn't necessarily a model that's reflected by other states that may not be unique to us."

Phares said the change will remove "the burden" schools face when they don't meet AYP and instead create "a clear distinction that allows them to receive the right support."

"Schools will have more flexibility in using federal funds for improvement," he said.

The move will also expand the Educator Evaluation System pilot program, which was implemented at select schools last year, to all counties by next school year.

The teacher evaluation system promotes high standards for teachers, provides data that indicates the effectiveness of teachers and offers development for areas of need.

Both teachers and parents will be held accountable for a student's performance, and attendance and graduation rates will be monitored as well, Tomblin said Monday.

"We have got to hold our educators accountable for student achievement while taking into account more than just test scores," Tomblin said. "Teachers, as well as parents, have got to have certain responsibilities to make sure that that student is in school ready to learn each and every day and on time. You can't learn if you're not there. So, this will put more responsibility back on the parents and the teachers."

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said he's glad to see a model designed "so that teachers are not the only ones being held accountable."

Bob Brown, of the state's branch of the American Federation of Teachers, said he's relieved to be away from "the cookie cutter mold."

"What works best for West Virginia means that the decisions should be made in West Virginia -- that's the only way that will allow us to achieve," he said.

The waiver will go into effect immediately for the 2013-14 school year.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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