Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna cheered the decision Wednesday, saying the state can now use its own system to more accurately measure student achievement and recognize schools that are performing well or struggling.
In granting Idaho the waiver, federal education officials also signed off on Luna's new accountability system that uses a variety of measures to gauge student achievement, including academic growth.
"This is a great day for Idaho students, Idaho schools and Idaho teachers," Luna said. "Our previous accountability system was put in place when Idaho's seniors were in second grade. It is a decade old and must be updated to more accurately measure student achievement now and in the future."
Idaho was among the first states to push for more flexibility under No Child Left Behind, but has waited longer than most to have its new blueprint for measuring accountability approved, and ultimately freed from the federal education law.
A year ago, the Obama administration and Education Secretary Arne Duncan warmed to the idea of freeing states from some of the law's provisions, bringing a level of creativity in states to education reform. No Child Left Behind, approved in 2001, required that states could only measure how well a school was performing based on proficiency in testing. These rankings were announced as Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP scores. The law also required all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014.
The challenge for Luna and his staff came in getting federal officials to sign off on its hand-crafted alternative to measuring achievement for students and school progress.
The plan approved by Duncan and his staff is known as the Five-Star Rating System, which Luna contends is underpinned by higher standards, academic growth and improved performance evaluations for educators. It also calls for Idaho schools to be judged not only on the state standard achievement tests, known as the ISAT, but also on how students perform on college entrance exams and how many of their secondary students are taking advanced placement courses.
Idaho began using the new system to measure performance during the 2011-12 academic year. Results show more than half of Idaho's schools achieved a four-star or five-star rating, while 99 schools earned one or two stars.
The new formula also has several components that were part of the controversial Students Come First education overhaul adopted by the Idaho Legislature in 2011, portions of which are subject to a voter referendum in next month's general election.
Specifically, Proposition 1 — one of three measures awaiting voter approval or repeal — includes the new state guidelines for annual principal and teacher performance evaluations.
Should voters repeal Proposition 1, Luna and his staff would have to revisit its federal waiver, said Melissa McGrath, spokesman for the state Department of Education.
"We don't think the U.S. Department of Education would come back and take away the waiver," McGrath said. "But we would have to figure out a way to address that."
The state's new accountability plan also needs final approval from the Idaho State Board of Education, which meets in Lewiston this week.
Nationwide, 33 states and the District of Columbia already have been freed from No Child Left Behind requirements. Some states are still having their plans reviewed, while six states have yet to apply for a waiver.