1. What is the No Child Left Behind Act, and why do some states have waivers from it?

The No Child Left Behind Act, a federal school-accountability law passed by Congress in 2001, called for all students to be proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year. Schools are required to report on the progress of all students, but they must also break out certain groups of students, including racial minorities, English-language learners, and students in special education. The law is several years overdue for a rewrite, and Congress continues to struggle to pass a new school accountability law. In the meantime, more and more schools appear unlikely to meet that 100 percent proficiency target. The U.S. Department of Education announced in 2010 it would invite states to apply for waivers from that 100 percent goal. (The NCLB Act gives the U.S. Secretary of Education broad authority to waive parts of the law.) As part of the waiver process, federal officials allowed states to propose new, more-realistic academic goals for schools so long as those goals sought to dramatically close the achievement gap between groups of students, such as between racial minorities and their white peers.

2. Will all states get a waiver?

So far, 34 states plus the District of Columbia have been approved for waivers. Several more states are waiting for a decision from federal officials. A few states have indicated they won’t apply for waivers, in part because the federal education department set conditions on waivers. For example, to get a waiver states have to agree to evaluate teachers in part on student test scores. Texas and California, for instance, so far have not submitted waiver applications that adhere to all of the conditions. Any state that does not get a waiver must abide by the NCLB law as written, which includes the goal for 100 percent student proficiency by the end of next school year.

3. In states with a waiver, what happens if schools do not meet new academic goals that states set?

It depends. As part of the waiver process, federal officials allowed states to design their own school accountability systems, creating rewards, consequences, and interventions for schools depending on how well they are educating students. Generally, these new academic goals are used, at a minimum, to identify and help schools with the largest achievement gaps. For some states, the goals are mostly aspirational, with no significant consequences tied to them. Other states make these goals a factor in a letter grade or score that’s given to a particular school. And still in other states, schools that don’t hit these goals can be targeted for specific school-improvement efforts or sanctioned.

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