Nevada to apply for No Child Left Behind exit in February

Nevada's bid to free public schools from the tightening grasp of No Child Left Behind, which demands an increasing number of students test as proficient each year, has been delayed.

The U.S. Department of Education has released its list of requirements for states to opt out of the federal program, setting a November application deadline. But Nevada won't apply until the alternative February deadline, said Keith Rheault, Nevada superintendent of public schools.

Nevada either meets, or is on track to meet, every requirement on the list but needs a little more time, said Rheault, especially because the state has to share the plan with districts and show federal officials it has support.

"We're definitely going for it," Rheault said.

Meeting the February deadline will still allow Nevada schools to be measured under that state's alternative system to No Child Left Behind in 2011-12. Under the waiver, each state must present a replacement system for assessing their schools.

That is good news for the Clark County School District, where only one-third of 357 schools earned a passing grade under No Child Left Behind last school year. The state as a whole failed to meet the benchmarks set by the federal law.

Most state superintendents support seeking the waivers, Rheault said. There are a few states, like Utah, that don't, but it's not because of a desire to keep No Child Left Behind in effect. Those states want the federal law to be changed, not sidestepped, so that all states are measured in the same way, Rheault said.

"Pretty soon, all the schools will be failing in America, and at that point, the law becomes meaningless," said Larry Shumway, superintendent of public instruction in Utah. "States are going to sit and watch federal accountability implode. We're seeing the end of an era."

Since No Child Left Behind's 2001 inception, fewer schools have met the federal benchmarks with each passing year. Utah has been a rare exception. About 78 percent of its schools made the grade in 2010-11. In 2009-10, 79 percent of Utah schools met No Child Left Behind requirements.

Still, Utah has a point, Rheault said.

"But if we don't request the waiver, school districts and schools will suffer," Rheault said. "Why punish the schools?"

After obtaining a waiver, each state is responsible for holding itself accountable, but how they do so must earn a federal stamp of approval.

A state must have common standards for all its schools, meaning a unified definition of the knowledge and skills students should master at each grade level. Check. Nevada adopted the Common Core Standards in 2010. All but six states have done the same.

Students across a state must take the same assessment tests. Check. Nevada students annually take Criterion Referenced Tests.

Teachers must be evaluated under a standardized system. Nevada is working on that. In late September, Gov. Brian Sandoval created the Teachers and Leaders Council to develop that system. The council's work won't be done in time for the application, but it doesn't have to be.

The biggest piece of all is how schools and districts as a whole will be held accountable. Nevada wants to use its recently created growth model.

The Nevada Growth Model would weigh student growth more heavily than meeting grade-level expectations on annual tests. Testing proficient is just about the only scoring factor of No Child Left Behind, which doesn't credit students or schools with academic growth that may fall short of proficiency.

But where to set the bar for students and schools under the growth model hasn't been decided. What is acceptable minimum growth?

"We really haven't picked what's good enough," Rheault said.

Nevada's district superintendents believe the growth model will be better than No Child Left Behind. Rheault met with all of them last week in Virginia City.

"They're still 100 percent behind the state going for the waiver."