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Timeline of a Waiver Request

How one set of questions from Connecticut set off a volley of name-calling and a potential lawsuit

For most education watchers, Connecticut's recent foray into the fight over No Child Left Behind began the moment state Commissioner of Education Betty J. Sternberg sent a letter to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. That letter asked, in part, that Connecticut receive a waiver to avoid the law's required annual tests.

But that letter, and all the name-calling, the threatened lawsuit (as of press time, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal still hadn't filed his promised suit against the DOE concerning NCLB's funding) and reconciliation meetings that followed, was in itself the culmination of years of discussion and planning. This story chronicles the timeline of this one request, and all the hell that has broken loose since Sternberg's letter was sent Jan. 14.

The Beginning

June 19, 2001

The seed that started this whole fight began before the landmark education bill was even passed, and well before Sternberg herself was the top education official in Connecticut. On June 19, 2001, Allan B. Taylor, then a member of the state Board of Education, sent a letter to U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman asking for an exemption from the annual testing that was already being discussed as a part of the new education bill. Taylor's argument then virtually mirrors Sternberg's today, that the state's rigorous criterion-referenced tests in fourth, sixth, eighth and tenth grades were sufficient to trace the achievement gap between many groups of students. Before the law required it, Connecticut already disaggregated the results of its tests and made that information public. On Jan. 8, 2002, President George Bush signed the law, with no exception made for Connecticut or any other state.

Official Complaint

January 14, 2005

The story fast-forwards to 2005. Two significant events had occurred: Sternberg took over the state's top post on Nov. 3, 2003, and Spellings was sworn in to replace Secretary Rod Paige on Jan. 20, 2005. During Spelling's confirmation hearings in the Senate, she spoke of the states' need for flexibility. In part, she said, "... we in the administration must engage with those closest to children to embed these [NLCB] principles in a sensible and workable way." The next week, on Jan. 14, Sternberg sent a three-page letter that specified four requests: no annual testing; the ability to use a cohort analysis rather than the law's year-by-year analysis; the ability to test special education students out-of-level; and the opportunity to teach English-language learners for three years (not one) before these students are tested in English in math, reading and science.

Critics Lining Up

February 1, 2005

At this point, Connecticut was one of several states lined up to complain about the law. Utah legislators were actively considering (and have now passed) legislation that would give its state education goals preference over the NCLB requirements, and Texas decided to follow its state rules about testing special ed students, ignoring No Child's mandate to test these students at their grade level. In addition, the largest teacher's union in the country, the National Education Association, criticized the law from its inception. The organization, with several school districts, recently filed a federal lawsuit that seeks to exempt schools from following NCLB requirements that aren't fully funded. Several districts, including one in Connecticut, have already refused Title 1 funds to avoid meeting the law's myriad requirements.

The Rejection, Part 1

March 1, 2005

With a visit from DOE's Assistant Secretary Ray Simon one day away, Sternberg receives a letter from Spellings turning down the state's request to forego annual tests. Spellings calls the tests a "fundamental provision of NCLB. ... We must be able to identify strengths and weaknesses and, for the sake of students, we cannot afford to do that infrequently. You cannot remedy weaknesses you do not know about."

In an interview with District Administration, Sternberg says while the answer was disappointing, the timing was worse. When the Simon visit was set up, Sternberg says, "I thought, 'Great, we'll have a discussion.' " Then the letter arrived and she says, "It clearly wasn't a real discussion."

Spellings' Op-Ed Piece

March 20, 2005

Nine days after The Hartford Courant, the state's largest newspaper, ran an editorial calling the DOE's response "a disappointing answer," Spellings wrote her own opinion piece in the newspaper. Titled Testing Serves Students, the column insulted some state education officials. It started like this: "To some students, 'test' is a four-letter word. Given the choice, I'm sure many would welcome the chance to be tested only every year. But the adults in charge of their education surely know better.

"Or do they?"

The column goes on quote a famous phrase about the state, that the rich towns and poor cities constitute " 'two Connecticuts: separate and unequal.' Students were misdiagnosed, victimized by low expectations and hidden behind district-wide averages--out of sight and left behind." Spellings also highlights some of the achievement gaps that exist in the state.

While the gaps mentioned are real--fourth-grade blacks scored 37 points lower than white students in NAEP's fourth-grade reading test--Sternberg's letter points out that Connecticut has disaggregated its statistics for 20 years. The state breaks student scores down by each subgroup called for in NCLB and does the same by gender, which is not required by the law.

Allan B. Taylor, now the chair of the state Board of Education, tells the Courant that there's no evidence that annual tests will improve the scores of low-performing students. He adds, "Secretary Spellings' use of the political campaign tactics of distortion and sarcasm is not worthy of the issues or her office."

Sternberg Fires Back

April 1, 2005

Two weeks later, Sternberg sends a letter to Ray Simon officially asking for waivers that would allow the state to alter its accountability plan in 11 areas, from the annual tests to how to define high school graduation rates to a change in consequences for schools deemed "in need of improvement."

On the day after this request, Sternberg counters with her own opinion column in the Courant. She starts like this: "Several years ago, I decided to lose weight. Seventy-two pounds later, I can tell you that achieving success did not require more trips to the scale, but did require changing my habits to eat less and move more. Oh, I certainly did weigh myself regularly--but once a week, not every day." She goes on to discuss Connecticut's achievement gaps, using the fourth-grade NAEP reading test that Spellings used. Sternberg points out that the state's white students have the highest raw scores in this category, while black students in only two states scored significantly higher than Connecticut's black students.

The Lawsuit Bomb

April 5, 2005

The entire tone of the waiver request changed when the state's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, announced that he planned to sue the U.S. Department of Education for requiring more tests without providing all the money needed to create them. "This law is outrageously wrong," he told the Courant. "The stakes here are huge."

Blumenthal leaned heavily on two reports created by the state Department of Education. The first detailed how NCLB would cost the state $41.6 million above what it gets from the federal DOE to implement No Child's requirements through fiscal year 2008. The money needed to create the new tests will exceed federal funding by $8 million; it will cost Connecticut $18.2 million more to give specific "technical assistance" to schools deemed "in need of improvement" through 2008. The second report examined three sample districts to gauge what the law would cost them. Through June 2008, these three districts will pay an estimated $22.6 million above what the districts get from the federal government.

Federal DOE Responds

April 5, 2005

The same day Blumenthal announced his intentions, the DOE released a statement that said the lawsuit threat rested on a "flawed 'cost study' ... that creates inflated projections built upon questionable estimates and misallocation of costs. ... [i]t is very disappointing that officials in Connecticut are spending their time hiring lawyers while Connecticut's students are suffering from one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation," the release said. "This is a sad day for students of Connecticut. ... Instead of addressing the issue at hand, the state has chosen to attack a law that is designed to assist the students most in need--and those whom these funds directly help."

During a later meeting, Simon was asked how the state's cost estimates were flawed. Sternberg says, "Simon responded, 'It's being analyzed right now.' So they came out the door [saying] it's flawed, but they can't tell you yet where."

Charges Fly

April 7, 2005

Two days after Blumenthal's announcement, Spellings took the Connecticut case head-on during an interview with Ray Suarez on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. (DOE officials refused to comment for this story; a spokeswoman said the department wasn't answering questions about the Connecticut case.) Spellings said the state was "trying to find a loophole" to not offer standardized tests in grades 3,5 and 7; that its attitude toward African-American children was "un-American;" and that the state practices "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Sternberg reacted immediately, saying the state was preparing tests for the grades in question, but that it would prefer not to carry out those plans. Sternberg also asked for an apology for the "soft bigotry" comment, calling the comment "simply outrageous."

Detente, Of Sorts

April 18, 2005

On April 18, Spellings and Sternberg finally met. Sternberg called the private meeting "cordial" and "informative." "It's clear they were trying to think of a potential compromise," she adds. The next day, Simon proposed that the state keep its robust tests, but add multiple-choice tests in the years in-between. "What they were really asking us to do is dumb down our tests," Sternberg says, because to compare grade four to grade five, you would have to only consider the multiple-choice part of the harder grade four test.

The Rejection, Part 2

May 4, 2005

Spellings faxed her final answer to the state DOE, saying it had to create additional tests and it wouldn't get more federal money to do so. Before this answer, Sternberg had mused that while this issue might be resolved for now, the fight was far from over. "I never give up. If, in fact, we can't get immediate relief around this, I think the value of what I'm putting forward, a solid request around the educational policy issues, sows the seed for discussion and eventual change in reauthorization, [then] everything I'm doing will not have been in vain. I really feel that way." NCLB faces reauthorization in 2007.