Several of the states that are applying for relief from provisions of the No Child Left Behind education law have submitted proposals that lack detail and evidence that they will produce substantive reform, according to a new report.

Nearly half of schools registered failing grades this year under No Child Left Behind's standards, amplifying criticisms that the law sets unrealistic goals and unfairly punishes schools that fall short. In light of Congress' failure to rewrite the law, the Obama administration has offered states waivers that would exempt them from certain mandates.

States seeking the waivers are required to submit applications outlining how they would undertake a number of reforms, including ways to measure student progress, hold schools accountable and assess teacher performance. A report from the Center for American Progress analyzed the applications so far and labeled Massachusetts and Tennessee stand out; Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota and New Mexico middle of the pack; and Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Oklahoma needs more detail.

Given the lack of immediate congressional action to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, these plans form the blueprint for the next few years of education reform, the report's authors wrote. The pressure is on, rightfully, to ensure such reforms are indeed ambitious and achievable.

Under No Child Left Behind, states had to demonstrate student progress through rising scores on standardized state tests in reading and mathematics, with the goal of reaching 100 percent proficiency by 2014. Those scores were measured against the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Many of the new plans focus on growth measures such as closing gaps between students, and the report warned of emphasizing making a little improvement rather than reaching ultimate proficiency.

One of the problems is when you're measuring the growth of a student you have to measure that against some sort of standard so you know what a growth from a 1 to 4 means, said Jeremy Ayers, the main author of the report. Do we want students to be at a 10, a 50, a 100? It is unclear to me if some of the proposals are setting an objective standard by which they are measuring their growth.

Obama Administration's Guidelines

The Obama administration's guidelines requires states to prove they are trying to raise achievement for certain subgroups that include low-income students, special education students or students who speak English as a second language. Some states would conflate those subgroups by focusing on the bottom 25 percent of students, a tactic the report questioned.

The question is by combining those subgroups can you get credit for making progress without maintaining a focus on all of those groups? Ayers said. In some applications states said they would combine subgroups and didn't make a strong data case that it would affect all their students.

Perhaps the most contentious component of school reform is the question of how to measure teachers and hold them accountable. There is still substantial disagreement about the best way to evaluate teachers, and Tennessee has faced a backlash from teachers who say its new system for judging teachers is inaccurate and overly time consuming.

The report warned that some states do not have the infrastructure in place to collect data on teachers. Many provided scant detail about what factors they would take into account -- student test scores and classroom observations are two common examples -- and how much weight they would assign to different considerations. Still, Ayers said the variety of different plans demonstrated the flexibility the waiver applications give states to develop accountability systems that are often in the R and D phase.

[The Obama administration] set some broad general guidelines and say student achievement has to be a factor but not what percentage has to be, Ayers said. They leave states latitude to develop these which is why there's so much variance between states, and we think that's right.

Many states are chafing to escape some of the No Child Left Behind's constraints, and the Department of Education sees the waivers as a way to grant that relief while advancing its school reform agenda. But the reports authors sounded a warning about politics overwhelming sound policy.

The secretary will face serious pressure to approve as many applications as possible in order to provide relief from NCLB, the authors wrote.We caution the department to resist this pressure because it could easily lead to lowering standards.