U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came to Connecticut Tuesday to announce it was one of eight states to receive a waiver for portions of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ law, giving the state flexibility to implement its recently passed education reform package.

The waiver, which Duncan said was awarded in large part due the passage of the education reform bill, will spare the state from the law’s requirement that all students show they are proficient in reading and math by 2014. Connecticut is now among 19 states which have received waivers to the 2001 law’s mandates.

“It’s about time that Connecticut starts winning federal approval,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said at a Capitol press conference. The state failed three times to secure federal ‘Race to the Top’ funds.

“I think today signals a change in that formula, a change in our applications, a change in our ability to compete with other states, a change which marks our dedication to doing in our state that which we know will work,” he said.

With the waiver, the state will have greater flexibility to determine how it spends federal education funding. Malloy said the waiver also allows the state to avoid a situation where close to half its public schools would be considered failing under the No Child Left Behind law.

The governor said the waiver represents federal acknowledgement that Connecticut’s education reform plan was a step in the right direction for a state usually known for its worst in the nation achievement gap.

“Quite simply, a waiver is a profound recognition that what we achieved over the last few weeks, that is real standards of accountability combined with a turnaround plan for struggling schools is the recipe we need to close the nation’s largest achievement gap,” Malloy said.

Though Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island also received waivers today, Duncan chose Hartford to make the announcement. He said he’d been closely monitoring the state’s progress.

“Of the 26 applications we received this round, Connecticut’s was amongst the strongest, most creative, and most innovative,” he said.

Duncan said part of what made the state’s waiver application strong was its plan for protecting students.

Connecticut’s waiver increases the number of schools held accountable for the performance of students in at-risk populations. It increases the number of schools responsible for disabled students’ performance from 276 to 683, students receiving free or reduced lunches from 757 to 928, he said. The number of schools accountable for the performance of African-American students increases from 280 to 414, Hispanic students from 356 to 548, and students learning the English language from 97 to 209, Duncan said.

“What that means is there were literally thousands of poor, disadvantaged, black and brown children, who were literally invisible under the No Child Left accountability system. And Connecticut has had the courage to say those children will no longer be invisible,” he said.

Duncan said the new data may actually make Connecticut’s achievement gap appear larger than previously thought, but it will be the truth.

The waivers are necessary because the law has become outdated and broken and there isn’t consensus in Congress to fix it, he said.

In February, President Barack Obama said the waivers offer flexibility to states trying to set their own standards higher than what No Child Left Behind calls for.

“We want high standards, and we’ll give you flexibility in return,” he said. “We combine greater freedom with greater accountability. Because what might work in Minnesota may not work in Kentucky—but every student should have the same opportunity to reach their potential.”

Connecticut Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said the waiver gives the state greater ability to assess the progress of students. Whereas, No Child Left Behind simply tries to determine whether a student is “proficient,” Pryor said Connecticut’s plan sets the bar a step higher but also takes into consideration the progress of students above and beneath that bar.

“Districts and schools aim at that cusp, they’ll move students across that bar but students who are coming from much further behind, who may achieve great things over the course of an academic year or years, who may not yet make it to that bar—they don’t count,” he said. “… That’s the before picture. The after picture is every student counts.”

When No Child Left Behind was first passed it received bipartisan support. However, over the years it divided lawmakers who found themselves competing against each other for money. And it left teachers grumbling about testing and parents upset about having schools labeled as a “failures.”

Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, said the waiver was a federal recognition that No Child Left Behind is a flawed law.

“With this waiver program, the federal government has acknowledged that NCLB took schools in the wrong direction from teaching to the test to imposing requirements that had little basis in research,” she said in a statement. “The best ideas don’t come from Washington or outside consultants or bureaucrats; they are ground-up reforms that embrace collaboration and proven ideas that work.”