State of Tennessee seeks waiver on No Child Left Behind

photo Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman


Reward schools, 169 in all, include the highest-performing 5 percent and the highest-progressing 5 percent of schools in the state. Focus schools, 169 in all, include the 10 percent of schools with the largest achievement gaps between groups of students. Priority schools, 85 in all, include the lowest performing five percent of schools.Here are the Hamilton County Schools included in each group:*Reward schools (performance)Chattanooga School for the Arts and SciencesChattanooga School for the Liberal ArtsLookout Mountain ElementarySignal Mountain Middle/High SchoolThrasher Elementary SchoolReward schools (progress)Snow Hill ElementaryPriority schoolsBrainerd High SchoolChattanooga Girls Leadership AcademyDalewood Middle SchoolHoward School of Academics and TechnologyOrchard Knob Elementary SchoolOrchard Knob Middle SchoolWoodmore ElementaryFocus schoolsBattle Academy for Teaching and LearningBrown International AcademyDuPont Elementary SchoolEast Ridge High SchoolFalling Water Elementary SchoolHarrison Elementary SchoolLakeside AcademyLookout Valley Middle/High SchoolSale Creek Middle/High SchoolSequoyah High SchoolSource: Tennessee Department of EducationThe list of school groupings may change with newer state data expected to be released this year.

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Tennessee's education chief has asked the federal government for reprieve from its No Child Left Behind law in favor of a more flexible state accountability system that focuses on overall school growth.

Instead of the strict achievement targets in the federal law, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman wants a system with "ambitious but achievable" goals that primarily targets the students who are farthest behind in learning.

If approved by the U.S. Department of Education, Tennessee's new accountability model would give more control to local school districts while easing the involvement of the state.

"As in all of our work, we believe that most of the work that needs to be done needs to be driven by local districts," Huffman said Monday during a conference call.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith said he's supportive of the state's move to obtain a waiver from the law. Though he didn't know all of the application's details on Monday, Smith said the nearly 10-year-old law is due for revamping.

"It's probably time for revision," he said. "We've worked under those guidelines now for the better part of a decade. I think it's a good move to review and adjust."

Huffman discussed Tennessee's waiver in advance of today's midnight deadline for applications to No Child Left Behind. He said he expects about a dozen states -- including Georgia -- to officially apply for waivers.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opened the door this year for state waivers from No Child Left Behind after congressional efforts failed to reauthorize -- and thus alter -- the law. In an August visit to Nashville, Duncan said Tennessee would be in a "great, great position" to apply for a waiver. Duncan's department set out new accountability guidelines for states looking for relief with approved state models focusing on growth, rather than just standalone test scores.

No Child Left Behind now mandates that schools, systems and states meet Adequate Yearly Progress, which contains strict benchmarks for student performance on state assessment tests.

"The basic concept of AYP is going to be fundamentally different. This is not a tweak. This is a basic change," Duncan said in an August conference call with reporters.

Tennessee wants to abandon giving schools a pass or fail score to a more nuanced system of labeling schools, Huffman said. If approved, Tennessee's model will group schools into several different categories:

  • Reward -- The top 10 percent of Tennessee schools, which includes the highest-performing 5 percent of schools and the top 5 percent with the most progress
  • Other -- The middle 75 percent of schools
  • Focus -- The 10 percent of schools with largest achievement gaps, such as those between races or between poor and wealthy students; it also includes high schools with graduation rates less than 60 percent
  • Priority -- Schools in the bottom 5 percent of overall performance across tested grades and subjects.

The state will focus its efforts on the focus and priority groups, the lowest-performing 15 percent, he said.

Schools that make gains will have more flexibility from the state, Huffman said, but those that regress or fail to make progress will be subject to more state intervention.

Funding also will go to schools or districts that have worthy plans for improvement rather than being divvied up among a large group, he said.

Part of the waiver application asks for flexibility in the spending of federal funds now meant only for Title I schools, those with high concentrations of low-income students. Huffman said that will give more control to local districts, which now have their hands tied in how to spend parts of their Title I funds.

No Child Left Behind requires that schools spend Title I funds on supplemental tutors for students and on transportation for students who choose to attend higher-performing schools.

"Our hope is, if we get a waiver, that districts are going to use some of their Title I funds for a broader range of things," Huffman said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or 423-757-6249.