The Maine Department Education is planning to apply for a waiver that would give the state flexibility in how it complies with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The application is due in February. In the meantime, the department is asking citizens to help it come up with a plan.

“We’re looking for everybody,” said MDOE spokesman David Connerty-Marin during a Dec. 5 media conference call, referring to three upcoming public forums and an online survey. “We’re looking for teachers, educators, students parents, school board members and all the other people I apologize for forgetting. We just want a very broad response on this.”

In September, the U.S. Department of Education released a framework under which it would accept requests from states looking for flexibility on certain requirements of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the precursor to NCLB.

NCLB (2002) is the most recent reauthorization of ESEA. In department literature at the state and federal level, the terms are used more or less interchangeably.

States looking to take advantage of the new flexibility around ESEA are being asked to come up with their own plans for “implementing college and career-ready standards,” identifying schools that aren’t doing well and holding those schools accountable or giving them more support.

Requests for flexibility can also include incentives for schools that are doing well or improving, a new feature that Maine Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen called a positive move away from the purely punitive system of NCLB. States would additionally be required to develop pilot systems for evaluating teachers and school administrators that take into account professional development.

According to press releases from the department, 11 states — Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Tennessee — submitted requests for flexibility on ESEA during the first round of applications. Twenty-eight more states, including Maine, have submitted letters of intent to file applications by the second deadline on Feb. 21, 2012.

Speaking on Dec. 5, Bowen elaborated on what the added flexibility might mean for the state and what would be required for the application.

“We are not allowed to decide which parts of the law we intend to ignore or modify,” he said. “They use the term ‘flexibility;’ in fact, I don’t know if the word ‘waiver’ appears in any of the federal stuff that I’ve found. It’s about giving flexibility within the law.”

Many of the changes fall under the broad category of assessment.

Bowen said a major criticism of NCLB has been its accountability system, which was supposed to bring all students to a level of proficiency by 2014.

“We’re not there,” he said. “And we’re not going to get there by 2013, 2014 and neither is anyone else.”

As a consequence, he said, the NCLB accountability system has lost its credibility. Under the new flexibility provisions, however, states could change the way performance is assessed.

“So the question is what else would we use?” he said. “Do we use attendance data, do we look at some type of parent involvement or parent surveys?”

Bowen said standardized testing would remain, though he said the current tests — the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP), given to third through eighth graders, and the venerable Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) for high school seniors — would be replaced by a new standardized test still in development.

“The question is what other indicators would we put in and calculate when we’re looking at what are the underperforming schools,” Bowen said.

Here he referred to the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, a 27-state group funded by USDOE that is developing new computer-based tests around concepts from the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Bowen later described the grade-level-based Common Core assessments that form the basis of federal evaluations as being somewhat at odds with standards-based education, which he favors, and said Maine DOE is “locked in a little” by the federal requirements.

Asked about the amount of testing required of students and teachers, Bowen related to his own frustration as a former eighth-grade teacher giving tests that consumed a week of school time and didn’t help him as a teacher, because scores weren’t released until the fall when students had moved on to high school.

“I certainly get that people feel there is too much testing going on, and I think we need to be sensitive to that. We need to be sure we’re not subjecting kids to more than is absolutely necessary,” he said.

More importantly, he added, there has to be value for the students in the testing.

“If kids understand that this assessment means you can move on to the next level of math next week because the assessment tells us you’ve mastered the standard, that’s different than a kid coming in, sitting and taking a standardized test whose purpose they don’t know,” he said. “When I had my eighth graders, the only question was, did it count? And of course it didn’t count, so they didn’t care.”

Forums on the state’s application for ESEA flexibility are scheduled for Dec. 8 in Bangor, Dec. 13 online, and Dec. 14 in Portland. Bowen said there will also be meetings with the many various stakeholder groups including teachers associations, businesses and others.

Between the application process and the pilot program, Bowen said it would likely be three school years before the new program is fully in place. He added that the slower process could be a benefit.

“Since every state in the nation is going through this, I think we’re going to have lots of models to look at, lots of approaches to look at,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of invention going on all across the country about this because it is challenging.”