MICHELE NORRIS, host: The Obama administration is giving school districts a waiver from some mandates of the No Child Left Behind education law. The law requires schools to reach higher goals each year. And by 2014, it demands that every student to be grade-proficient in reading and math. The Obama administration says the law is overly punitive. It has repeatedly called on Congress to rewrite the legislation.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren explains what the administration is doing now.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Education Secretary Arne Duncan is opening the door for states to avoid the penalties and deadlines of the current No Child Left Behind law. States have long been clamoring for changes to the law. Its requirements have gotten so strict that Duncan says, soon, more than 80 percent of the nation's schools could be failing them. June Atkinson, the state superintendent of public instruction in North Carolina, says the law's all-or-nothing approach just doesn't work.

JUNE ATKINSON: It really labels a school that misses one target in the same category as a school that misses 99 percent of its targets.

SHOGREN: As of last year, only 27 percent of the schools in her state met the requirements. She says only a small percentage deserves the sanctions and intervention the law requires. Tom Luna, the superintendent in Idaho, says his state is one of many that wants to measure schools by how much progress individual students are making, but the current law discourages this. He says the way this plays out in schools is that a child could show up in September reading three years behind grade level.

TOM LUNA: And at the end of the school year, they could've gained two years worth of academic growth in one year. But because they still are not quite at grade level, we want to label that school as needs improvement. If we measure growth, then we recognize that not only is that child doing well but that school is doing well.

SHOGREN: Duncan hopes to offer all states relief from the law.

Secretary ARNE DUNCAN: Where folks are really doing the right thing for children, we want to give them a lot more flexibility - frankly, get out of their way and let them hit that higher bar.

SHOGREN: He says the perverse incentives of the law have led to the dumbing-down of standards in many states, including Tennessee, which just recently tightened standards.

DUNCAN: They raised the bar significantly. Tennessee went from 91 percent of children proficient in math to 34 percent. That was a very tough lesson, but for the first time, they are telling the truth.

SHOGREN: Duncan says current law penalizes states for making changes like that. It labels schools as not meeting the grade and tells them what they can and cannot do with their federal dollars.

DUNCAN: We can't have a law on the books that impedes that kind of progress, that stands in the way of that kind of courage.

SHOGREN: The details of the new program will come out next month. But assistant to the president Melody Barnes stresses that it will be rigorous.

MELODY BARNES: States are going to have to embrace the kind of reform that we believe is necessary to move our education system forward.

SHOGREN: House Republicans complained that the secretary should have waited for Congress. Wisconsin Republican Thomas Petri says he understands Secretary Duncan's frustration, but says the waiver program will be confusing and counterproductive.

Representative THOMAS PETRI: Rather than further centralizing decision-making in the secretary of Education's office in Washington, it would be better to, with all its difficulty, let the normal constitutional legislative process unfold.

SHOGREN: But Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, says America's children couldn't wait any longer for Congress to snap out of it.

GENE WILHOIT: We're caught in this sort of impasse and inability to take action.

SHOGREN: Wilhoit says that's heartbreaking and dangerous, because a law designed to help all children succeed is instead stopping schools from improving. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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