U.S. Department of Education grants Pennsylvania waiver from No Child Left Behind law's AYP requirement

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The measure used for public school performance throughout Pennsylvania for more than a decade -- adequate yearly progress, or AYP -- is being replaced by a new accountability system.

The U.S. Department of Education and Gov. Tom Corbett announced Tuesday that the federal government has granted the state a waiver to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which was enacted in January 2001.

The new system is called School Performance Profile. Each school will be given a profile score, based on test participation, performance, graduation or attendance rates and closing certain achievement gaps.

The state Department of Education has not released results yet for the spring 2013 state tests.

It is expected to release the results and the profile scores next month.

The No Child Left Behind Act calls for all students to be proficient on state tests in math and reading by 2014, something many viewed as unrealistic. That prompted calls for change, but Congress has been unable to agree on a new bill. In the meantime, the Obama administration decided in 2011 to offer flexibility to states willing to make "rigorous" education improvement plans.

When Pennsylvania submitted its request in February, most states already had been granted a waiver. So far, 41 states and the District of Columbia have been approved. Four state applications are pending.

The waiver applies to all public schools, school districts, brick-and-mortar charter schools, cyber charter schools, career and technology centers and intermediate units.

In a news release, Mr. Corbett said, "This waiver allows Pennsylvania to focus on improving schools by directing resources to areas that help students academically succeed. We now have a better way of guiding improvement efforts in schools by establishing ambitious, yet attainable, goals."

Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said she thinks the waiver is a "good thing."

"It allows us to put some realistic expectations for academic progress in place rather than be held to 100 percent proficiency, which, although it sounds honorable, is nearly impossible for all children."

She said, however, she has doubts about whether it will improve student achievement for students who need it the most.

"The reason I have those doubts is because there is so much focus on scores instead of what are the real issues that are facing those students that are preventing them from achieving," she said.

Under the system used before the waiver, schools had to hit state targets for percentages of students proficient on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment math and reading tests as well as test participation and graduation or attendance rates.

Targets were set for the school as a whole as well as subgroups, such as economically disadvantaged, black and special education, if there were 40 or more students in the same designation.

If schools met the targets through one of a variety of ways, they were deemed to be making AYP. If not, they went through various stages, from warning to corrective action, depending on how many years, that carried sanctions, most notably public scrutiny.

In the new system, there are four "annual measurable objectives" that make up the profile:

• A 95 percent participation rate on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments in grades 3-8 and the end-of-course Keystone exams for Algebra 1, biology and literature, which in spring 2013 for the first time replaced the 11th-grade PSSAs.

• A graduation rate of 85 percent or higher or an improvement over the previous year. If a graduation rate doesn't apply, then there is an attendance rate target of 90 percent or improvement over the previous year.

• Closing the achievement gap of all students by 50 percent within six years. The gap is to be based on a comparison percentage of students who are proficient and advanced on 2012-13 state tests with 100 percent proficiency. The tests covered are the PSSA, Keystone Exams and PASA, a test for severely retarded or physically limited children.

• Closing the achievement gap of historically underperforming students, also by 50 percent within six years in a similar manner. This would be an unduplicated count of students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged and English language learners enrolled for a full year and taking the state tests.

Title 1 schools -- which have a high percentage of low-income students and receive federal funds -- would be designated as "priority," "focus" or "reward."

Schools not in the Title 1 program still would receive a profile score but not one of the three designations. They will have access to the intervention and supports available to Title 1 schools.

For its intervention efforts, the department noted various principles, including focusing on having principals who are strong leaders; ensuring effective teachers; providing additional time for student learning and teacher collaboration; and strengthening instructional programs.

As part of the support system, the state will provide academic recovery liaisons to help priority schools.

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Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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