When the federal No Child Left Behind legislation was signed into law in 2002, it called for all students in public schools that receive federal funding to test proficient in math and reading by 2014.
But a decade later, education officials realize that goal is unlikely, if not impossible.
As a result, in August, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that President Barack Obama had authorized him to grant waivers to the NCLB legislation because Congress has failed to act on a rewritten version of the law. That announcement was followed in September by Mr. Duncan's department issuing guidelines for states to apply for waivers. Those guidelines call for states to embrace education reform conditions in return for waivers.
In October, the first deadline in the waiver process, some 40 states filed a notice of intent to file for waivers, but Pennsylvania was not among them. States have until mid-February to decide whether to continue with the formal waiver process.
But Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis has gone another route.
Instead of applying for a formal waiver, Mr. Tomalis this month requested permission from Mr. Duncan for a two-year freeze on Pennsylvania's Adequate Yearly Progress targets on the annual Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams. Pennsylvania uses the PSSA exams to measure academic progress under the NCLB.
That request became public this month when Mr. Tomalis reported it to the state board of education.
"The secretary's position has not changed. He still has reservations about the NCLB 'waiver' program put forward by the U.S. Department of Education, and as such, he has not made a final decision on applying for a waiver," Tim Eller, spokesman for the state education department, wrote in an email.
"What the Secretary informed the State Board last week was his meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Education for Pennsylvania to amend its Accountability Workbook, which would freeze the annual targets for AYP. The Secretary submitted a letter to the U.S. Department of Education for consideration." Mr. Eller wrote.
Each state has an accountability workbook, which outlines its blueprint for improving achievement under NCLB.
Mr. Tomalis' request for the two-year freeze has been met with support from some educators whose districts have great struggles ahead in trying to meet AYP targets.
For the 2011 PSSA exams, the AYP targets were for 67 percent of students to score proficient or advanced in math and 72 percent in reading. For 2012, those targets are scheduled to increase to 78 percent in math and 81 percent in reading, with the target rising to 100 percent by 2014.
"NCLB is good in the idea of accountability and making improvements. But the goal of all children being proficient by 2014 is not realistic," said Timothy Gabauer, superintendent of the McKeesport Area School District, where none of the six schools made AYP. "To think that we will go from 30 percent proficient in 11th grade math to 80 percent in one year is unreasonable."
Norman Catalano, curriculum director for the Woodland Hills School District, called Mr. Tomalis' request for the two-year freeze "reasonable," given that 2012 is a presidential election year and it is unlikely that Congress will complete the reauthorization of the NCLB.
Sto-Rox Superintendent Michael Panza said he hoped Mr. Tomalis is successful in his quest. "I think it's a great idea and I applaud Secretary Tomalis," Mr. Panza said.
In Allegheny County, Sto-Rox, McKeesport Area, Woodland Hills and Duquesne did not make AYP.
The PSSAs are given to students in grades 3-8 and 11, and progress is measured across grade levels and in any subgroup that contains 40 or more students. Not all grade levels and subgroups hit the state targets in the districts that made AYP. That's because one or more alternative methods were used to determine AYP.
Statewide, 94 percent of districts made AYP, but only 46.9 percent made it based on student performance. Another 37.8 percent made it based on a method called safe harbor, 8.2 percent on the growth model method and 0.8 percent on two-year average performance, according to statistics released by the state education department.
Methods such as "safe harbor" and "growth model" are recognized by the NCLB and can be used to get to the 100 percent proficiency mark, Mr. Eller said.
The safe harbor designation is for groups that show at least a 10 percent reduction from the previous year in the percentage of students who scored below proficient. The confidence interval designation is used to award AYP to districts that come very close to their performance goals. The growth model is used to compute AYP in districts that miss the target but are making adequate growth toward proficiency.
Daren Briscoe, deputy press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, confirmed that Mr. Tomalis sent a letter dated Jan. 9, 2012, asking that Pennsylvania be permitted to amend its accountability workbook to enact the two-year freeze.
Mr. Briscoe said he could not comment on whether the department would grant the freeze but noted that Mr. Tomalis' request does not constitute a formal waiver application. Mr. Briscoe said, under current law, Pennsylvania does not qualify for a two-year freeze because Pennsylvania's plan for improving achievement calls for it to improve in increments "all the way to 2014."
Mr. Tomalis has not specified what his objections are to the formal waiver process.
Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said his organization "would certainly look with favor upon that as would the districts of the state."
"To apply for a waiver you had to agree to certain requirements by the U.S. Department of Education that you had to follow, it wasn't just a waiver. A freeze would certainly be a lot cleaner in terms of what the districts have to follow," Mr. Robinson said.
There is no timetable for when the U.S. Education Department will respond to Pennsylvania's request, Mr. Briscoe said.
If the freeze is not granted, Pennsylvania will be required to comply with the current NCLB legislation, which calls for state government oversight and possible control of districts that don't reach 100 percent proficiency by 2014.
In the meantime, local school officials are preparing for the 2012 PSSA exams that will be given in March.
"We are so focused on what we need to do in this district," Mr. Gabauer said. "We look at where we need to go and what we need to do to get there. None of this changes what we do on a daily basis in our district."
The situation is similar in Woodland Hills.
"I think everybody understands that 100 percent is one of those goals that is very difficult to reach, if ever," Mr. Catalano said. "For a struggling district like ours, the goal is to get more and more proficiency and get better in every way, shape and form. Our strategy is straightforward."
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org ; 412-851-1512. First Published January 26, 2012 5:00 AM