By Paul Frysh, CNN
(CNN) The Obama administration's announcement that 10 states are being granted waivers from some demands of the federal government’s controversial No Child Left Behind policy has some experts asking: Where's the beef?
"It's not that different from the previous policy," said Tina Trujillo, an education policy expert at University of California.
School and teacher assessment for the waiver-versions of NCLB "still centers on standardized test scores because it mandates that teacher evaluations be based largely on test scores." This can be destructive because by focusing on test scores, teachers are penalized for choosing to work with the students who are most in need -- encouraging teachers, even those who want to work with more at-risk kids, to move to higher scoring districts, said Trujillo.
NCLB requires schools to hit certain benchmarks measured by standardized test scores in order to receive certain kinds of funding. Assessments are required of the states to show they have reached the benchmarks -- one of which was to reach 100% proficiency in math and reading by 2014, a requirement almost unanimously maligned by education experts. Though the waiver removes the 2014 proficiency-for-all deadline, the focus on assessment through standardized testing remains.
"The Obama administration says it wants more innovative and passionate and creative teaching but anytime you tie the consequences to school performance on test scores, you encourage narrowing of the curriculum."
"As long as what they are really going to be held accountable for are those standardized test scores -- that is what is going to drive teachers’ and school leaders’ behaviors and it is going to corrupt their behaviors and encourage the same kind of counterproductive behaviors that they have done for years under NCLB. They are going to continue to narrow their curriculum to the curriculum that's tested." Other unfortunate outcomes, like the standardized test cheating scandals that have plagued some districts under NCLB, are also possible, said Trujillo. In fact, she said, in some ways the new waivers could do even more to encourage counterproductive behaviors. "The stakes are going to be higher because we have waivers that are encouraging states to include provisions for firing staff or changing school status to a charter."
This is particularly the case in poorer schools and districts, where scores remain low because of a host of factors over which the schools have no control -- factors like, family access to early childhood education, parent literacy and education, home stability, health, mobility, language, and race, she said.
It's the kids in these districts kids that are supposed to be at the center of the NCLB initiative, she said. "The debate ought to re-focus on questions of how federal and state government can support schools that serve high numbers of disadvantaged students to increase their capacity to better serve them," Trujillo said. "How can they provide resources to attract, develop, and retain good teachers in hard-to-staff settings? How can they provide resources to support school and district leaders to deepen teachers’ expertise about rigorous, culturally relevant instruction?"
Educator and teacher advocate Anthony Cody is even more adamant: "That this administration can continue to promote policies like this which make teaching to the test inevitable, and simultaneously decry the practice defies reason," he said.
"I pity the students and teachers in the states that won waivers from the cruel impact of NCLB. They have very likely traded one set of onerous rules for another…Whereas NCLB punished whole schools for the poor test scores that often accompany students who live in poverty, or are learners of English, under the systems created to gain waivers, individual teachers and administrators will be punished, through poor evaluations and in some cases, loss of pay."
But Martha Reichrath, deputy state superintendent of schools for the state of Georgia which received a waiver on Thursday, said the new NCLB is a vast improvement.
"The way we were assessing our teachers in many of our states -- a lot of us were using the same standard evaluation instruments that had been in place for years," Reichrath said.
But with the waiver, she said, Georgia is back on track. "We have finally got our stars aligned."
Georgia's waiver expands the subject matter that students will be tested on in assessing school and teacher outcomes, a great improvement, she said, on the previous system.
Even in the case of schools in poor districts, with historically low performing school populations, the new system makes allowances, she said.
"We have given our schools ample opportunity for growth and progress not just absolute performance. We know our kids in many cases have a more uphill battle than others so we built that into what we are doing, yet we still set very high expectations for all of our kids."
Though acknowledging past problems with testing benchmarks set by NCLB, Reichrath said she is not troubled by the continued stress on testing.
"You are talking to a person who believes strongly in accountability," said Reichrath.
"I have no problem in us making sure that academic skills are going to enable our kids to do whatever they need and want to do post-high school. All of us as professionals have accountability for doing the very best job we can to equip our kids."
But what remains unclear to many experts is whether testing is the best way to gauge those outcomes and whether the "new" NCLB will produce the same unintended consequences as the old.