When the U.S. Department of Education (ED) notified Washington state that it would lose its NCLB waiver this fall, I questioned whether the Evergreen State should be alone in facing the prospect of re-compliance with the zombie federal law. Obviously, Washington could not deliver on the teacher evaluation system it promised, but other states have broken promises too—especially those that are dropping the Common Core standards or the tests that PARCC and Smarter Balanced are developing to accompany them. How strong can ED’s approach to oversight actually be if there are no consequences for waiver states that bail from these efforts?

Given the headlines, you might think I’d been proven wrong. Last week, Indiana received its waiver monitoring report, and the results aren’t pretty. Not only is the state not meeting expectations in a majority of areas (the worst performance I can recall), but it is also facing a new condition on its waiver. Now that the Hoosier state has dumped both Common Core and PARCC, ED’s monitors questioned how officials would ensure implementation of college- and career-ready standards and tests in 2014-15, a key waiver promise. As ED’s letter to Indiana explains, the state now has 60 days to submit a high-quality plan for their new standards and assessments, or risk further ED action. These actions could include being placed on high-risk or losing its waiver entirely.

But is Indiana’s waiver really at risk? Is this letter—as Andy Smarick writes—evidence that “ED is seriously holding Indiana’s feet to the fire” over its Common Core reversal? The biggest lift for the state will likely be to conduct an independent evaluation verifying alignment between Indiana’s assessments and its newly adopted college- and career-ready standards. Because Indiana plans to administer its current state-developed test again in 2015, it’s unclear whether the older test will be sufficient. And can the Hoosier state really secure such a study in two months?

It might be easier than you think. Yes, Indiana is the first waiver state to un-adopt the Common Core, but it is hardly the first to withdraw from PARCC or Smarter Balanced. And the experiences of these states offer the best idea of what lies ahead for Indiana.

Georgia, Oklahoma, and Utah also withdrew from the consortia after receiving a waiver contingent on their implementation of those tests. Each of them was also sent a letter, asking for the same “high-quality plan” required of the Hoosier state, with the same list of bullet points… except instead of a 60-day deadline, they only had 30 days. How did that turn out? None of these states is on high-risk. Each submitted a plan and appears to be on track for an extension, even if crucial details are missing … like what assessment, exactly, Georgia will administer next year. Perhaps that’s just a minor detail?

Similarly, Florida, Kansas, and Wisconsin also changed their testing choices mid-waiver. Florida and Wisconsin don’t even have a deadline to submit their high-quality plan (perhaps because they had already selected a replacement from AIR and ACT Aspire). Instead, they will update their waivers via the extension process this summer. Kansas, a high-risk state, is obviously in greater danger, but not because of its assessment choices–pilots are already underway for the new state-developed test next year. Teacher evaluation remains the issue of concern.

I agree with Smarick that, in many ways, the Indiana letter is a policy Rorschach test. Supporters of a stronger federal role will cheer the move as long-awaited, meaningful oversight, while local control fans will cry “national school board!” when they see the conditions Indiana must meet. And, if history is any indication, the voices of the latter will be louder. Smarick adds that “we shouldn’t be surprised when the backlash to federal activity in K–12 swells” thanks to a growing “stack of letters from Uncle Sam scolding various state leaders about their inadequate fidelity to federal rules related to standards, assessments, educator evaluations, school interventions, and more.”

But what Smarick didn’t mention is that the stack of letters already exists. These letters, and the monitoring reports that follow them, already offer plenty of ammunition to the local control crowd. Case in point: Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) grilled Secretary Duncan about waiver oversight in a Congressional hearing, citing Politics K12’s post on Michigan’s unflattering monitoring report.

But while these letters are a boondoggle for those looking to criticize Duncan’s use of executive authority, they offer very little to the administration’s allies who favor a robust federal role. The letters (excepting Washington) have all the appearance of strong accountability—a 30-day timeline! high-quality plans! bullet points!—but none of the substance. Just look at the experiences of Georgia, Oklahoma, and Utah. For all the back-and-forth between states and ED, only four have come close to losing a waiver—and if Alyson Klein’s latest is any indication, Washington may continue to stand alone.

Despite the new missives from ED to state chiefs, states continue to be the more powerful player in the NCLB waiver game. And no, waivers aren’t the policy version of “Mother, May I?”—as Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) put it—with exasperated states trying to follow the fickle, prescriptive commands of Secretary Duncan. That’s because in “Mother, May I?” there are setbacks if you disobey the rules. (For a refresher: here’s how the waiver game actually plays out.)

Instead, ED still seems to prefer to let states keep their waivers, despite poor implementation and empty promises. Without more evidence that these letters, including Indiana’s, come with real consequences or that other states are in serious jeopardy, I’m not as convinced as Smarick that the Department is upping its game. I just think more people are starting to watch.

An earlier version of this post indicated that Kansas would not implement a new college- and career-ready assessment until 2016. Thanks to Marianne Perie, co-director of the Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation at the University of Kansas, for noting that Kansas has sped up its timeline by a year and will deploy its new assessments in spring of 2015.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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