Missouri receives extension for No Child Left Behind waiver

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JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri received an extension on its flexibility waiver on Tuesday under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the most current reauthorization of which is more commonly known as No Child Left Behind. The extension allows the state to use its own system to effectively identify struggling schools and recognize schools with exemplary performance, as opposed to the federally mandated system.

"We actually had the federal system and state system, and it was burdensome for our department and for school districts to have to report things in two different ways to two different entities," said Sarah Potter, Communications Coordinator for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). "So by getting the waiver, it really simplified things not only for us but for the school districts."

The waiver also gives Missouri school districts flexibility with their Title I funding.

"Before, they would have to restrict 20 percent of their funds to do after school tutoring and all kinds of things that may or may not have actually helped the kids, so this gives us more flexibility, gives us one system," said Potter.

The basic components of No Child Left Behind are still in play in Missouri, aside from three major changes:

College-and career-ready standards for all students:

According to Potter, one of the weaknesses with No Child Left Behind was the unrealistic expectation for 100 percent of the students to be proficient by 2014.

"What that meant is that pretty much all of our districts were going to be labeled failing because 100 percent of their kids weren't proficient," she said. "And the states that are still under that system are having funds restricted, they're held to these unrealistic expectations, but Missouri is out from under all of that."

Potter said with the waiver, Missouri is able to set its own goals and performance standards, and help students in a way that makes more sense to the districts' needs.

Recognition and accountability for school districts:

DESE sets a list of standards for school districts to meet each year.

"We look at MAP scores, we look at graduation rates, we look at attendance rates and then we look at our subgroup, which is students that traditionally struggle in school, that don't perform as well as their peers," said Potter.

The department uses those standards to provide a report for each district and each individual school building, showing which districts are doing well and what things need to be improved upon.

"It's supposed to encourage continuous improvement, so performance goals are going to continually go up year after year so school districts can't stay static," said Potter.

To be fully accredited in Missouri, districts have to get at least 70 percent on the annual performance report. The ones that go above and beyond will be recognized as accredited with distinction, but currently 97 percent of the school districts in Missouri are meeting the goals.

Schools that don't measure up to those standards are called "focus schools." This year's waiver extension included an amendment to the criteria for "focus schools." In previous years, any school with higher than 25 percent of its students classified as non-proficient was considered a focus school. For the 2014-2015 school year, this was lowered to 10 percent.

"We want to be a top ten state for education by 2020, that's our goal. So we looked at all of the states that were in the top 10, looked at their performance and projected where they would be by 2020, and we set our goals to meet the other states that are in the top 10," said Potter.

Supporting and developing effective educators:

"That comes with making sure our ed-prep programs are holding our teacher candidates to high standards and that they're helped along to become master teachers later on in their career," said Potter.

Missouri has a model evaluation system, which means all districts evaluate their teachers in the same manner based on their experience and needs.

"It's about making sure you don't expect the same thing from a first year teacher as a 20 year teacher. They both have different challenges and different needs of support," said Potter.

What's new this year

The initial application process for the waiver took 6-9 months.

"It was really just a lot of back and forth, giving good explanations for what we do here in Missouri which is different from every other state, and helping the federal officials understand that this works in Missouri and this makes sense, so we want to continue with this system," said Potter.

The department made amendments to the waiver extension for the 2014-2015 school year.

"We revamped our assessment system this past year. We're all doing the ACT for all eleventh graders, so we had to make sure that was approved by the federal government," said Potter.  

The state will also no longer require as much testing for students.

"We're doing less end of course exams, the tests are going to be a lot shorter, so we wanted to make sure that all of that was going to be approved too," said Potter.

Potter stressed the importance of the waiver extension for parents and students, as well as the school districts.

"It really gets down to helping kids, helping them reach their full potential, and that's the whole idea of the accountability system, that we ask districts to do a little bit more every year to continuously improve, and they're helping their kids improve through that system. So this is great news for the districts, for the department and for our students," said Potter. 

For more information about the benefits of the waiver, visit dese.mo.gov. To learn about Missouri's learning standards, visit missourilearningstandards.com.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated for content.]