Maryland was one of eight states granted a waiver Tuesday from some of the strictest requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which will allow the state to set more reasonable goals for student achievement levels and adopt reforms to close the achievement gap.
Maryland was among 25 states and Washington, D.C., to apply in the second round for relief from the federal law, which requires that every student in the country be proficient in reading and math by 2014 and has since labeled more than half of the country's schools as failures.
Last year, President Barack Obama offered states that have embraced his administration's key education reform initiatives — including Maryland — the opportunity to apply for a waiver from some of the elements of the Bush administration's 2002 signature education law.
So far, 19 states have been approved for waivers. Many of the states had also adopted reforms for the federal Race to the Top grants.
In addition to Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, North Carolina, Ohio, New York, Louisiana and Rhode Island also received waivers Tuesday. Seventeen states and Washington, D.C., are still under review.
In a conference call, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the states whose applications were strongest had three key elements: They were on track to strengthen college and career readiness programs, are focusing on teacher and principal effectiveness, and would apply strong accountability measures for their lowest-performing schools.
"States can only receive waivers if they are protecting children," Duncan said, "and these eight states have met that bar."
According to Maryland's application, schools should cut their achievement gaps in half in the next six years. Schools will be measured not just on how all students perform, but also on groups of students, including minorities, special education students and those who speak English as a second language.
"Federal officials are allowing Maryland to concentrate efforts on those schools in greatest need of assistance," Interim State Superintendent Bernard Sadusky said in a statement.
"We are not turning our back on accountability, and will continue to work to make certain all schools and students improve. At the same time, we are pleased the U.S. Department of Education will allow us to funnel resources into those classrooms with the most vexing issues."
Districts across Maryland have been anticipating the waiver, as the percentage of schools labeled failing — in even the highest-performing districts like Montgomery County — has increased every year, as the 2014 deadline approaches.
Currently, one-third of Maryland's schools, which have been deemed No.1 in the country, are considered failing under NCLB.
Under its application, the state will give each school an individual goal to meet in six years in reading and math. Using the percentage of its students who now pass Maryland School Assessments, the state will require each school to halve the number of students who currently aren't achieving. Groups such as special-education students would also have to make similar progress.
High schools will be judged on how well students do on the Maryland High School Assessments and on whether they are increasing their graduation rate.
A school that doesn't meet the goals will not be labeled failing and will not have to institute drastic overhauls that could include getting rid of the principal and most of the teachers.
"The goals in the application will help the entire state redefine progress," said Baltimore City schools CEO Andrés Alonso.
Last year, about 90 percent of the district — including schools that consistently outperform the rest of the state or whose achievement rates had increased significantly — failed to meet NCLB's federally mandated achievement targets, called "adequate yearly progress."
Alonso and other superintendents have also supported the state's goal of allowing districts to opt into NCLB-mandated programs, like an embattled tutoring program called Supplemental Educational Services.
Several superintendents have said that the program takes up a large chunk of federal dollars targeted for the most needy students, while tutoring vendors operate with loose reins and little accountability.
The money, they say, could be used more effectively. In Baltimore, Alonso will seek flexibility from the state to use part of the system's $7 million to $8 million SES allocation for extended school time, like Saturday school or a longer school year.
Lobbyists representing the tutoring companies descended on Annapolis during the Maryland General Assembly this year to ask lawmakers to intervene in allowing SES to be optional. Their efforts failed.
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.