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Virginia public schools earned another year of exemption from some requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, the U.S. Education Department announced July 3.

The law, enacted in 2002, focuses on reforming education by increasing accountability for schools and teachers and measuring student progress based on standardized tests.

No Child Left Behind also set escalating benchmarks of student achievement for schools to reach, including a final goal that all students be proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year. Schools that do not meet that goal could face serious sanctions, including the loss of federal aid.

With the law the subject of increasing concern among educators as deadline approached, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced in August 2011 that the Obama administration would grant state waivers from stricter parts of the law. The waivers include exemption from the requirement for 100 percent reading and math proficiency. Duncan said at the time that the pressure to meet the benchmarks created unrealistic requirements that undermined reform.

States are awarded waivers in exchange for executing alternative reform plans. Virginia earned a waiver in June 2012 for the for 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years. That waiver has now been extended for an additional year.

Under the waiver, the state created new achievement goals focused on narrowing performance gaps between high-achieving and low-achieving schools in state assessment tests and graduation rates. The state also implemented more specific accountability measures for the lowest-achieving 15 percent of schools in the state and implemented new teacher and principal evaluation systems.

Though Virginia’s new plans maintain standardized assessments as a key part of their framework, the greater state autonomy that came with the waiver allowed for a move toward standardized testing reform.

Changes passed by the General Assembly in March include a reduction in the number of required SOL tests. The five eliminated exams will be replaced by project-based assessments.

“We want to look at assessment in different ways and not rely so much on standardized testing,” Superintendent Karen Garza said. “We needed to create room in the system for that type of assessment to occur.”

The ability for states to work creatively on problems of student assessment and achievement is one of the advantages of the waivers, according to Duncan.

The waivers “have allowed states to move beyond the one-size-fits-all mandates of NCLB, to be more innovative, and to engage in continued improvement in ways that benefit educators and students,” Duncan said in a statement.

Virginia’s moves under the waiver have also attracted criticism. The state differentiated its new student performance goals by race, ethnicity and income. State officials said staggering the benchmark pass rates on standardized tests set realistic standards for bringing lower-achieving groups up to speed. But the move rankled some minority advocates, who saw it as setting lower expectations for minority students.

The new teacher evaluation systems also stirred controversy. Teachers chafed against the addition of student academic performance as an evaluation measure. They also struggled with added workload that came with the new data-intensive system.

Still, state education officials support the progress made under the waier.

“[The] decision to extend the flexibility waiver allows Virginia and its school divisions to plan for the 2014-2015 school year with clear goals for narrowing achievement gaps and improving teaching and learning in under-performing schools,” state Superintendent Steven Staples said in a statement.

The letter confirming the extension of the waiver said flexibility has enabled the state “to carry out important reforms to improve student achievement.” The letter from Deborah Delisle, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, noted that if the state remains on track with its reform objectives it could qualify for a longer renewal next spring.

Currently, 43 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have received a flexibility waiver, according to U.S. Department of Education. The waivers in 35 states expire this summer, and 29 have submitted an extension request. The Department of Education is reviewing extension requests on a rolling basis.

Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Nevada and South Dakota also were awarded one-year extensions with Virginia last week.