AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The U.S. Education Department on Monday excused Texas from the most strenuous requirements of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law, granting the state a reprieve from some of the standardized testing-based accountability standards it helped pioneer.
The department said it issued a waiver in exchange for a state plan to prepare students for college and career, focus aid on the neediest students and support effective teaching and leadership.
Forty-one states and the District of Columbia have been issued similar waivers, but none may carry the symbolic importance of Texas' waiver. The law was the signature education initiative of President George W. Bush, who modeled many of the changes it implemented nationwide on the practices of his home state while he was Texas' governor.
No Child Left Behind took effect in 2002 with the goal of making all children proficient in math and reading by 2014. The program's benchmarks have gotten harder to reach each year, and federal education officials suggested that waivers would give states more leeway to improve how they prepare and evaluate students.
Despite being up for renewal since 2007, Congress hasn't addressed the law, prompting the Obama administration to issue waivers.
Texas has long said it would like the flexibility of a waiver but that it was reluctant to seek one because of fears that the federal government could attach strings to it. Still, Education Commissioner Michael Williams, then settling into his first week on the job, reversed course last September and asked for a waiver.
Williams, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry, said Monday that the waiver will no longer require Texas' 1,200 public school districts and charters to be designated as having met federal "adequate yearly progress" standards. Federal designations will instead only go to the lowest performing 15 percent of schools statewide, which will become subject to a series of federally mandated interventions.
In 2012, just 44.2 percent of Texas public schools met No Child Left Behind adequate yearly progress standards. The state didn't release 2013 results because it was seeking the waiver.
Meanwhile, last year the National Education Association ranked Texas 43rd in the nation in spending per student based on daily average attendance.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote to Williams and said the waiver was being granted conditionally, since Texas had yet to finalize its guidelines for teacher and principle evaluations. It will take effect for this school year, though.
Texas has long championed accountability benchmarks for students, teachers, school administrators and districts based on student performance on state-mandated tests. That system helped serve as the basis for the creation of No Child Left Behind.
Last year, Texas began a new testing regimen that required high school students to pass 15 standardized tests in order to graduate. Amid a backlash against perceived over-testing, however, the Legislature in May overhauled the state's education standards. It slashed the number of passed tests needed to graduate to five and rewrote curriculum standards to leave students more flexibility for vocational and career training rather than strictly college-prep courses.
Williams said he emphasized to federal officials that "Texas was the first state to develop and implement college- and career-readiness curriculum standards, the first state to assess those standards, and is the first state to implement an accountability system to hold schools accountable for preparing students for postsecondary success."
"The underlying message throughout our negotiations with the federal government," he said, "has been Texans know what's best for Texas schools."
When asked during a subsequent meeting with reporters if Texas is distancing itself from a key Bush administration initiative, Williams responded that it wasn't.
"Much of what the administration developed in terms of the beginning of (No Child Left Behind) — not necessarily what we're seeing today — we do in the state. ... And we'll continue to do as a state."
Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber contributed to this report.