AUGUSTA — Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen is optimistic that Maine will receive a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind education law and be able to set up a new school accountability system for next year.

After nearly a year of work, the Maine Department of Education submitted its waiver application Thursday — less than an hour before a 5 p.m. deadline.

During a Thursday afternoon conference call with media, Bowen said Maine’s application was still not finished and compared the last-minute submission to a college student slipping an assignment under a professor’s door. The 76-page proposal was posted to the department’s website at about 5 p.m.

Bowen said his department has been in contact with federal officials, and he thinks Maine will receive a waiver by Election Day, Nov. 6.

“We had a couple of questions, but there wasn’t anything they suggested to us was setting off any alarm bells,” Bowen said. “They signaled to us that they were very excited to hear from us, that they were very excited to work with us on this.”

Maine’s plan jettisons the practices of holding all schools to the same achievement goals and judging a school entirely on the absolute percentage of students scoring “proficient” on tests.

Instead, schools would have their own goals and receive credit for year-to-year school progress and the growth individual students make.

“The thing we like about this option is that it allows us to customize those growth targets based on where a school is at this point,” Bowen said. “Because schools are all over the place.”

Some aspects of No Child Left Behind must remain in place, such as annual standardized testing and a mandate to close achievement gaps among certain groups of students. But the federal government is granting states flexibility on other elements of the law, in particular the way school progress is measured and categorized.

Thirty-three states have received waivers, and a handful of others are pending. According to news reports, New Hampshire and West Virginia also planned to submit applications on Thursday.

Maine officials initially planned to turn in their proposal by an earlier deadline in February but decided to take more time to prepare it. That means Maine schools are still subject to the law’s achievement targets this year, though the state did get permission to use the 2010-11 targets when determining whether schools made adequate progress last year.

Each year the percentage of students who must score proficient on standardized tests increases, reaching 100 percent by 2014, a perfect standard that no state is in a position to achieve. Schools have failed to keep up with the rising targets, meaning that more each year are labeled as needing improvement and subjected to additional oversight.

Under Maine’s waiver proposal, schools would have to cut the number of students not meeting proficiency by half within six years. In a school where 36 percent of students are not proficient, that number would have to be reduced by 3 points each year until only 18 percent are not proficient.

Schools would be sorted into four categories: priority, focus, progressing toward target and meeting target.

Priority and focus schools would have to conduct self-assessments and create improvement plans, and the Department of Education would provide support to help them improve. Bowen said No Child Left Behind is very prescriptive about interventions for schools that repeatedly miss targets and that Maine’s plan will provide them with more flexibility.

As the department gathered input about the waiver application last year, educators and members of the public complained about No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on standardized testing. But the department decided not to incorporate alternative measures of school success that it floated earlier, such as discipline data, staff turnover rates or parent, student or teacher surveys.

Most of the factors in the proposed school accountability index are related to standardized test scores, though graduation rate is also included for high schools.

Bowen said some local school officials were worried about the reliability and validity of such alternative measures, as well as the fact that they would require implementing new ways of collecting and reporting the data.

Great Schools Partnership Associate Director Mark Kostin, who worked on the proposal, said priority and focus schools will examine some of those measures as part of their self-assessment.

“When that school develops its improvement plan, they’re relying on that data in a much more diagnostic way, rather than a way as to determine the performance of that school,” Kostin said.

Although data on student proficiency, graduation rates and attendance will continue to be reported for all schools, the proposed accountability system of labeling and interventions would apply only to schools receiving Title I money. Title I provides federal funding to schools with a high percentage of low-income students, including about 360 of Maine’s more than 600 public schools.

Bowen said the department will present the Legislature with a bill for the next session to extend the accountability system to all public schools.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]

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