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W.Va. gets waiver from No Child Left Behind

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginia schools are now free to ignore much of the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind.

The U.S. Department of Education granted West Virginia's request for a flexibility waiver Monday, accepting instead a state-developed plan for the state's education system.

That plan includes a new method for classifying school performance -- instead of simple distinctions between schools whose test scores indicate which are making progress and which are not, the new plan will sort schools into five groups based on performance.

Officials think the narrower distinctions will mean more transparency regarding school performance, and the power to funnel extra funding to schools that need it most.

State School Superintendent Jim Phares said the state already has identified 32 low-performing schools under the new guidelines. Those schools -- which the state is now calling "priority schools" -- should be announced later this week.

Annual performance reports will "provide a more comprehensive picture of where a school is meeting expectations and where it's not," Phares said.

The centerpiece of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act was the idea that all students should be able to score at least "proficient" on state standardized tests by 2014 -- a goal that is now largely seen as unfeasible.

Under the old guidelines, schools were mainly judged by whether they were making "adequate yearly progress" toward that proficiency goal. The focus on adequate yearly progress -- and the severity of the consequences if schools fail to meet those annual benchmarks -- has long been the focus of scorn from the law's detractors.

Under the waiver, schools will be judged based on progress in several areas, instead of a blanket pass or fail. They also will be recognized for growth on any level.

State officials are touting the waiver as a bottom-up approach to counter the top-heavy nature of the federal law.

"Our plan will provide flexibility for our school systems, allowing them to find ways to meet their needs," Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Monday at a press briefing.

The state Department of Education submitted the flexibility request last September and has been working with federal officials since then, making revisions and tweaking its model as it worked toward approval.

It was developed with input from the governor's office, the education community and the teacher unions.

Those unions threw their support behind the new accountability plan.

Bob Brown, a senior official with the American Federation of Teachers, said teachers appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with education officials on the plan.

"We were able to arrive at a product that relieves us from being in a cookie cutter mold where we have to treat our schools and our students and our faculty in West Virginia like they do in New York City or rural Colorado," he said.

"What works best in West Virginia, those decisions should be made in West Virginia."

Forty-five states have requested waivers from No Child Left Behind since the fall of 2011, when the Obama administration announced that it would grant the flexibility waivers in response to inaction in Congress to make changes to the massive education law.

Alaska and Hawaii also had their waivers approved. Those two states and West Virginia join 34 states that already have had waivers approved. A handful are still under review.

West Virginia's new accountability standards will be launched in August.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.

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