By Caren Bohan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Thursday he was granting 10 states exemptions from parts of the "No Child Left Behind" education law, a move that could prove popular in an election year with parents and teachers who have criticized the law - but raises concern among some advocates for low-income and minority students.
Announcing the change at the White House, Obama said he wanted to let school and state officials pursue "higher, more honest standards" instead of following a one-size-fits-all template. "What might work in Minnesota may not work in Kentucky," he said.
The states to be granted waivers are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.
The education law, a signature initiative passed under President George W. Bush, was aimed at holding public schools accountable for improving student performance and closing the "achievement gap," in which minority students often scored far lower than their white peers on standardized tests.
The goal was to ensure that 100 percent of students were proficient in reading and math by 2014. But with that deadline looming, it became clear to many educators that the goal was unattainable.
The federal law's focus on testing students in math and reading has drawn criticism from teachers and parents, who contend that schools often focus so intensively on those subjects, they slight science, social studies and the arts.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently echoed those concerns, writing that the emphasis on math and reading scores "as the primary measure of school performance has narrowed the curriculum."
The decision to grant the waivers could help Obama politically as he campaigns for another term ahead of the November 6 election.
Last year, nearly half of all U.S. public schools failed to make adequate yearly progress toward the proficiency goals laid out in the No Child Left Behind law, according to the Center on Education Policy, a research group based in Washington, D.C.
In five states - Florida, Missouri, New Mexico, Massachusetts and South Carolina - at least 75 percent of schools were deemed failures by the federal standards.
Those standards defined failure quite broadly. A school got the label if even one subgroup of its students - such as students learning English as a second language or disabled students with special needs - did not reach the federal targets for improved proficiency in reading and math.
Schools that didn't improve in some cases were required to offer tutoring to students, allow kids to transfer to higher-performing schools, or replace teachers or administrators.
HOLDING SCHOOLS ACCOUNTABLE
The waivers granted on Thursday allow states to stop slapping the dreaded label of "failure" on so many schools. Instead, the states are required to draw up their own plans to hold schools accountable for educating all students.
Duncan said the administration could revoke waivers for states that have not improved their standards.
Under Colorado's waiver, schools will still have to break out test scores by demographic subgroup. But in assessing performance, officials say they will focus more heavily on student growth - improvements in scores from year to year.
Keith Owen, associate commissioner of education for Colorado, said the rigid federal standards prompted some teachers to focus all their attention on the "bubble kids" - those who tested just below proficient and could perhaps be nudged into a passing category with extra help.
There was little incentive to boost gifted kids to a higher level or to work with those students who were hopelessly behind and didn't have a realistic chance of passing the test.
Schools that fail to show adequate growth will have five years to improve. If they don't, they face sanctions including being shut down, Colorado officials said.
But some critics fear that jettisoning the high standards of No Child Left Behind will effectively give schools permission to leave more children behind. The federal law shined a spotlight on the test scores of minority and low-income children, they said, and forced schools to work hard to close achievement gaps.
"We've got to find a way to preserve the essential promise of No Child Left Behind, that all students be given a meaningful opportunity to succeed," said Angela Ciolfi, the legal director of JustChildren, a group that advocates for low-income families in Virginia.
States that received waivers said they intend to maintain a focus on narrowing the achievement gap - but will now have more flexibility to do that their way. Tennessee, for example, pledged in its waiver application to cut the achievement gaps in half over the next eight years while continuing to boost overall test scores.
"It's not helpful or realistic to label schools and districts as failing, especially when they are making significant academic gains," Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said.
Though states have more flexibility under the waivers, they must continue to test every student, every year, with teachers and schools being held to account for the result. Critics say that can lead to "teaching to the test" rather than focusing on critical thinking skills and other educational outcomes.
Other states have already applied for waivers or plan to do so soon. No Child Left Behind will continue to apply to any state that has not received a formal exemption.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Simon in Denver, Timothy Ghianni in Nashville and Laura MacInnis and Samson Reiny in Washington; Editing by Eric Beech)