HARTFORD -- U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Tuesday that Connecticut is one of eight states to receive a waiver for the No Child Left Behind law in the latest round of requests, bringing the national tally to 19 states.
The announcement came during a news conference at the state Capitol, at which Duncan was joined by Gov. Dannel P. Mallov and Connecticut Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor.
Later, Danbury Superintendent Sal Pascarella said he had not reviewed the final agreement, but was pleased the waiver would change how the state determines a school's adequate yearly progress, making it a valued-added system that takes into account the progress a district student makes over time.
Pascarella, who leads the city's 10,000-student, 18-school district, said, "Overall, this will allow us to focus our attention on assisting students and closing the gap and not be so concerned about what is happening in Washington.
"This will give superintendents a lot more flexibility,'' Pascarella said.
Duncan said Connecticut's waiver application, which was submitted in late February, was chosen because it outlined a path to reform that included three important objectives:
Elevating college- and career-ready standards;
Strengthening, elevating and supporting teachers and principals;
Creating accountability systems that identify resources in the lowest performing schools and districts.
"Of the 26 applications we received in this round, Connecticut was among the strongest and most innovative," Duncan said at Tuesday's news conference.
Other states to receive the waiver are Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island.
Connecticut's plan increases the number of schools accountable for the performance of students with disabilities from 276 to 683; for free and reduced-price lunch students from 757 to 928; black students from 280 to 414; Hispanic students from 356 to 548; and English learners from 97 to 209, Duncan said.
"That means there were literally thousands of poor, disadvantaged black and brown children who were literally invisible in the No Child Left Behind system," Duncan said.
The waiver will allow the state to design a new system of accountability, support and intervention in schools.
"Our goal has been a simple one, frankly: to get out of the way whenever possible and let states and districts figure out the best way to educate children," Duncan said.
He said he plans to grant waivers for more states in coming weeks.
Though Duncan said he would like to see a restructuring of the No Child Left Behind act in the near future, he acknowledged the bipartisan support restructuring would need "is not where Congress is right now," and the waivers will serve as a bridge until that time comes.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001, and mandates that 100 percent of students at every school in the nation be deemed proficient by 2014. But as the deadline draws nearer, educators and policy makers alike are looking for an overhaul.
The waiver will give Connecticut greater flexibility in using Federal Title I dollars and avoid a situation where nearly half of the state's public schools would likely be deemed as failing in 2014.
Pryor said one of the major benefits the state will receive through the waiver is that proficiency will no longer be the only factor that counts in measuring student achievement.
He described a "before picture," in which the number of students who reach proficiency is the only goal calculated, "students who start much further behind and don't make it to that bar don't count" and students who start above that bar and move upward don't count, either.
"The after picture is that every student counts. Every student's achievement will be measured. Every classroom, with all the students within it, will be valued for the progress it makes," Pryor said.
The waiver does, however, come with a new set of expectations.
These include new assessments aligned to the Common Core Standards beginning in the 2014-15 academic year.
It also calls for the authorization of intensive intervention and support for the state's lowest performing schools and districts, as well as a new system to evaluate teachers and principals.
All of this was outlined in Connecticut Senate Bill 458, An Act Concerning Education Reform, which was signed into law earlier this month.
"We wouldn't be here if they hadn't passed that bill," Duncan said. "It was a huge step in the right direction."
Being singled out as the location for such an important announcement can be seen as a turning point for Connecticut's status in the education ranks, Malloy said.
"I have to say it's about time that Connecticut starts winning federal approval," the governor said, referencing the state's failed bids for federal Race to the Top money in two consecutive years.
"We have been in many competitions under No Child Left Behind where we have come up really lacking ... and I think today signals a change in that formula," he said.