President Barack Obama’s decision to free Massachusetts from some requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law was a vote of confidence for a system the state designed to assess the performance of public schools, top state education officials said Thursday.
Massachusetts on Thursday was among the first 10 states to be granted waivers from the 2002 law, which set a goal of having all children proficient in reading and math by 2014.
“This is really a case where perfect has become the enemy of good,” said Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Under the federal measuring stick for No Child Left Behind, known as Adequate Yearly Progress, about 80 percent of Massachusetts schools and 90 percent of school districts were deemed as failing last year.
“That just flies in the face of common sense, and it is not useful at all,” Chester said. “It invites cynicism, and it doesn’t help us distinguish between schools that are on the move and schools that are stuck.”
Massachusetts officials, in their application to the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver, pointed to their five-tiered assessment plan for schools and school districts, with level one being the strongest and level five the weakest.
Chester said most schools place in the top two tiers. The state recently took control of the public schools in Lawrence, a city about 25 miles north of Boston, after it was deemed a level five underperforming district.
Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick’s education secretary, Paul Reville, said the No Child Left Behind waivers show a realization that the 2002 law was “deeply flawed.”
“It’s not that everything is bad,” Reville said. “There are some very strong features, but (the law) needed reworking.”
The law, championed by the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., passed Congress with bipartisan support and was signed by President George W. Bush, a Republican. It has been up for renewal in Congress since 2007, but lawmakers have been unable to agree on the fix.
Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a conservative-leaning Boston-based think tank, said he worried the waivers signal a sense of urgency in the nation about education accountability.
“2014 was supposed to be the year that no child was left behind,” he said. “Now it’s been moved, back and we don’t have a clear sense of when that hard date … will be set. It could be five years out, 10 years out, but we have actually let up a lot of the urgency.”
Stergios also was critical of the Department of Education for granting waivers from the law without congressional authorization.
“Sending out waivers with conditions that have not been approved by Congress,” he said, “is totally new and breaks a sense of trust with Congress.”
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