School Superintendent Randy Watson has been flooded with phone calls from other school leaders since his central Kansas district received a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind education law.
Forget state tests for sixth-graders through high-school students in the McPherson School District. They don't have to take them anymore to prove that the district is making annual progress toward having 100 percent of its students meet grade-level expectations by 2014.
Instead, the 2,400-student district will track student achievement for its older students with standardized tests developed by the same group that administers the ACT college entrance exams. The elementary students will continue to take state tests.
Watson said this week that the ACT-developed tests are more rigorous and do a better job of preparing students for college and careers — the latest federal push. The change also means the district will be able to bypass the 100-percent goal with its older students, although they still will be required to show progress on the alternative exams.
The district petitioned the federal government for a waiver in September and learned last week that it had been granted. Since Monday, Watson has gotten calls from a couple dozen Kansas school districts congratulating him and asking him how he did it.
Kansas Department of Education spokeswoman Kathy Toelkes said it's the first waiver of its kind to be granted in the state. Watson said federal education officials told him it's the first of its kind nationally, but the U.S. Education Department wasn't immediately able to confirm that.
Watson said no one — not even parents — likes the education law.
So far the McPherson School District isn't struggling to comply with the law's requirements, although at some point Watson said they would because the percentage of students required to meet grade-level standards is increasing rapidly each year as 2014 approaches.
"To get to 100 percent proficiency, it's a great goal, but it's an impossible law," Watson said. "You have students who don't speak any English taking the exam. Students who are handicapped taking the exam. You are never going to get to 100 percent."
For those schools and districts that fail to hit the targets and receive federal Title I money for serving students from low-income families, there are sanctions. They start with things like providing tutoring and increase to massive turnaround efforts.
Watson said the district had a series of meetings two years ago and came to the conclusion that state tests weren't telling the district whether its students were prepared for places like college — the first stop for about 78 percent of its graduates.
It decided the ACT would be a better testing fit because its college readiness exam is used to make admission decisions. ACT offers other tests to measure career readiness too.
He said that 95 percent of its eighth-graders met grade-level standards in reading last year on state exams. He said this fall, the same group took an ACT exam designed for middle-school students, and 61 percent of them were deemed on track to be ready for college by the time they graduated.
That's well over the national average, but the district wants it to be higher.
"We said the state assessments are too low," Watson said. "We said we are measuring the wrong things."
Congress is working to reauthorize the education law. But Watson sought the waiver now because he doesn't know when Congress will act and what will happen when it does.
State education officials also are seeking a waiver for the entire state. Kansas wants the annual targets for state reading and math tests to be held at 2009-2010 levels until it is able to implement something called Common Core Standards. The state-led initiative aims to establish a uniform set of expectations on what students should know by the time they graduate from high school. Current standards vary widely from state to state.
Tests based on those new standards aren't expected to start until the 2014-2015 school in Kansas. If the state's request is granted, Kansas would be able to avoid the toughest years of the law's implementation.