WASHINGTON -- States can ask for another year before being required to use student test results to decide whether to keep or fire teachers, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told school chiefs on Tuesday.
Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have earned permission from the Education Department to ignore parts of the No Child Left Behind education law in exchange for school improvement plans. As part of those plans, many states have linked student performance on standardized tests with teacher evaluations -- a move that teacher unions protested and Republicans criticized as Washington overreach.
Those states now can ask for another round of waivers to delay implementing teacher evaluation programs until 2016. Additionally, school chiefs can petition the Education Department for permission to administer only one statewide test to each student -- instead of doubling up with the current statewide version and new versions required as they adopt higher standards.
"After listening to teachers and education leaders, we are providing additional flexibility to states," Duncan told reporters.
Teachers have complained they are not yet familiar with the tougher new standards and should not be punished if students don’t fare well on the tests. Teachers’ unions have sought a grace period for educators and students alike to become familiar with the more difficult standards, known as the Common Core.
Duncan’s announcement comes as the House and Senate consider sweeping rewrites of the No Child Left Behind Law that would render Duncan’s moves moot. The Senate’s education committee last week finished work on its proposal and sent it to the full Senate, although no vote has been scheduled.
The House, meanwhile, was set to begin work Wednesday on its version and planned a vote by the full chamber in the coming weeks.
The education measure expired in 2007 and has not been replaced.
The 2001 No Child Left Behind education law was implemented with bipartisan support from President George W. Bush and Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. The law imposed ambitious accountability standards, such as requiring all students to meet achievement targets in math and reading by 2014.
No Child Left Behind’s standards now are seen as overly ambitious. But without a new law from Congress or permission from the Education Department, states would be penalized for not meeting its standards.
Republicans have said the system of waivers-for-promises has given Duncan inordinate amounts of power, and they are working to scale back his department’s authority in the rewrites.
"More waivers and bureaucratic rigmarole can’t address the challenges facing our nation’s schools. Students and families deserve a better law, and that’s exactly what leaders in the House and Senate are working toward," said Republican Rep. John Kline, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
His Senate counterpart, Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, said this is the latest example of the Education Department working as a "national school board."
"If anyone is looking for further proof that our education system is congested with federal mandates, the education secretary is now granting waivers from waivers," said Alexander, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "The waivers were meant to give states relief from unworkable requirements, but the education secretary put so many conditions on states that now the waivers are unworkable."
States have until Sept. 30 to seek an extra year of preparation before educators are held accountable for the tougher standards they promised.
American Federation of Teachers chief Randi Weingarten, who earlier this year called for a moratorium on all high-stakes testing, urged states to seek the extra time.
"The ball is now in the states’ court to take advantage of this opportunity to get it right, to work actively with teachers in the trenches and engage parents to make sure this rollout is successful -- district by district, school by school," she said.
And Dennis Van Roekel, president of the nation’s largest teachers union, called Duncan’s announcement "a step in the right direction."
"We are deeply committed to student success and we know that testing is a key part of the process, but it cannot become the primary focus," the National Education Association chief said.