Waivers under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as No Child Left Behind) allow states to avoid NCLB-mandated accountability targets in favor of state-determined accountability regimes.

Most states have applied for and received a waiver  from the Department of Education that allows them to avoid the 100 percent proficiency targets set by No Child Left Behind. In September 2011, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that the administration would allow states to request flexibility in meeting some of the requirements under NCLB in the absence of the law’s reauthorization.

Requirements that the Department of Education offered to waive include states meeting AYP targets whereby students must reach 100 percent student proficiency by 2014 in reading and math, and mandated interventions, whereby districts must allow students to attend different schools and offer Supplemental Educational Services for Title I schools and school districts failing to meet the AYP targets. The waivers also allowed states to opt out of mandatory interventions for districts failing to meet requirements to staff only ‘Highly Qualified Teachers’ in their schools.

In order to receive flexibility through a waiver, states needed to demonstrate that they had adopted or would implement a series of reforms to their academic standards, student assessments, and accountability systems for schools and educators. Specifically, the Department required states to implement 1) college- and career-ready standards and assessments that measure student achievement and growth; 2) a differentiated accountability system that both recognizes high-achieving, high progress schools (reward schools) and supports chronically low-achieving schools (priority and focus schools); and 3) teacher and principal evaluation and support systems to improve instruction. A team of peer reviewers, along with Department staff, studied the proposals, commented on each request, and offered suggestions to states to help them win approval.

Since February 2012, 34 states and Washington, D.C. have been granted waivers, which will be in effect until the end of the 2013-14 school year, when states will have the opportunity to extend their waivers for another two years. For states without waivers, NCLB remains in full effect.

States have struggled with implementing the policies outlined in their waiver agreements with the Department of Education. Just like the provisions in NCLB that the waivers allow states to escape, reforms states set in motion using waivers have been controversial. Some constituencies have objected to the new policies. These include the new Common Core State Standards and assessments many states have adopted; the annual student achievement targets that states have set (which are often different for historically disadvantaged groups of students); states’ new systems for measuring school quality and/or identifying schools for improvement; and states’ plans to implement teacher and principal evaluations based in part on student test scores. Despite these difficulties, it appears likely that waivers will continue to serve as de facto federal policy until NCLB is reauthorized.