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Missouri's bid for federal test waiver enters home stretch

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 14, 2012 - Trying to get out from under the cookie-cutter requirements of No Child Left Behind, Missouri submitted its application for a waiver to federal education officials.

Then it got a response and critique back. Then the phone calls and the emails began. Finally, last week, education Commissioner Chris Nicastro took a quick trip to Washington to make a personal appeal.

Now, she is hopeful that Missouri's students and schools will be judged by Missouri rules rather then by benchmarks almost everyone agrees are too ambitious and have made too many good schools look like failures.

She notes that because the Missouri School Improvement Plan (MSIP) mirrors the evaluation process that Washington is looking for, the waiver would make a lot of sense.

“Phone conversations are great, emails are great,” Nicastro told the Beacon Monday. “But sometimes you have to have face-to-face interaction to bring some clarity about the history of MSIP and what it stands for. It’s become very clear to us that we do have a system we can be proud of in Missouri. Not every system has the rich history of accountability that we have in Missouri.”

In fact, she added, in some cases, it wasn’t until they began assembling their waiver application that some other states began developing the kind of accountability measures for individual school districts that Missouri has had for many years and is now moving into its fifth version

“All the work we’ve been doing over the past two or three years on MSIP5 really served us well,” Nicastro said. “Many states, once waivers became available, started some of these processes we have been doing for a couple of years. So all of the work we did around the state provided a strong basis for us to present a waiver request that really represented Missouri values and still met federal guidelines.”

Strict rules, ambitious goals

No Child Left Behind began in the George W. Bush administration. It set targets for all students to become proficient on standardized tests, raising the bar each year until the goal became 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

But almost as soon as it went into effect, it became clear that the rules were too stringent, the goals were too ambitious and the entire process prompted schools and districts to focus more on the tests than many educators thought was wise.

As the 2014 deadline approached, and reauthorization of the law stalled in Congress, the Obama administration used what it said was its authority under the act to allow states to come up with their own methods of gauging satisfactory annual progress by students.

The waiver processfor No Child Left Behind -- the Obama administration calls the law by its more formal legislative name, ESEA, or the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – calls for states to make the case that they can satisfy the act’s requirements in three separate areas:

  • Expectations for all students to graduate ready for college or a career
  • Accountability and support from the state to bolster student achievement
  • Support for effective leadership and instruction

Eleven states won waivers in the first round of the exercise. Missouri became one of 26 states, along with Illinois, plus the District of Columbia, to submit applications in the second round, in February.
In its initial response, the federal government said Missouri’s application was strong in parts of two of the goals – college or career readiness plus effective leadership and instruction – but it expressed reservations about the blueprint’s detail to hold schools accountable for improving student achievement, particularly for students from families living in poverty, so-called Title I students.

Nicastro said the department began to address those concerns but noted that based on her conversations with her peers in other states, the evaluation was fairly typical.

“The first reaction of the department for most states has been lots of questions, lots of need for clarification,” she said. “This is new territory for them, as it is for us. Before, when the rules were set by No Child Left Behind, everybody was on the same page. The department had one set of rules they had to deal with.

“Now, they are looking at 50 different sets of rules. Some of it is just that whole process – how they establish the parameters, how they make sure they are upholding the law and still giving states the maximum amount of flexibility that they want to give us and that we want. They want to make sure every state is establishing and maintaining high standards, and we don’t have any trouble with that.”

She also said that – like her department in Missouri – the federal Department of Education may have too few people handling too many applications. 

“Getting through the first 11 was a difficult process for them,” Nicastro said. “They have some of the same issues with capacity that we do, and frankly I think this has been a little bit overwhelming for them.”

Particularly difficult, she said, was striking the balance between too much detail and too little.

“There were kind of mixed messages,” Nicastro said. “Should we put everything but the kitchen sink into the applications, or should we specifically respond to their guidelines? I think that depending on which team you have reviewing your waiver request, the answer may be different.”

A matter of context

As far as Missouri’s application goes, she said she finally realized what kind of context the federal reviewers needed.

“We had kind of an 'aha' moment last week in a conference call,” she said. “They kept asking questions, and it became clear to us that while we’re very aware of Missouri’s decades-old system of accountability with MSIP, they had no idea of that. So we had to do some background work on that, how MSIP has evolved and made a clear transition from looking at input measures to looking at output measures.”

Nicastro said federal officials did not give any specific timeline on when they will respond to the applications. If Missouri does get a waiver, she said, school districts in the state “will have the flexibility to determine how to use their Title I money. It just shows that one size does not fit all.”

So far, Missouri has not had a lot of success in winning extra funds from the federal Department of Education. It did not get a grant from the Race to the Top competition, and it did not win an early-childhood education grant it sought last year. But Nicastro said falling short in those two areas does not necessarily predict a lack of success in getting a No Child Left Behind waiver.

“Those were competitive grants,” she said, meaning there was a specific pot of money that states were vying to win. “These are not competitive.

“Race to the Top was more about reforms, and Missouri has not had a bold reform agenda. Some would say that’s a problem, and some would probably be happy about that, but we haven’t. As far as early childhood goes, those grants went to states that have a well-established system of early childhood in place, and unfortunately we are not one of those.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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