COLUMBIA -- South Carolina's new education accountability system would look a lot like the system that has been in place for years if the U.S. Education Department lets South Carolina opt out of No Child Left Behind, a spokesman for the state agency said Monday.

Superintendent Mick Zais' application for an alternative way to evaluate student and school performance will be based on the state testing system that dates to 1998. He will seek to shed the added-on federal system that created dual, confusing reports on schools' effectiveness, said Zais spokesman, Jay Ragley.

President Barack Obama is allowing states to seek a waiver of the stringent requirements of No Child Left Behind that every child in America test proficient on state-standardized tests by 2014, regardless of race, poverty, disability or ability to speak English. Schools that miss their targets face increasing consequences, from paying for students to receive free tutoring to potential state takeover. And the goals become increasingly harder to reach as benchmarks climb toward the ultimate 100 percent goal.

Zais, a Republican who won his first political office in November, has said the 2001 law that labels a school as failing to make progress if it misses a single target is unfair, misleading and demoralizing to hard-working educators.

"Let's give schools partial credit for growth," Ragley said. "The waiver is not about getting out of accountability but a different way to meet the goal of accountability."

Zais hopes to apply for the waiver by the mid-November deadline, he said. The next application period is in February.

Kathy Maness of the Palmetto State Teachers Association said she's excited that Zais is seeking a waiver from a law teachers consider unreasonable. She hopes the waiver removes some of the teaching-for-the-test pressure.

"I think it will allow teachers the opportunity to have more creativity," said Maness, adding that she looks forward to working with Zais on the application, since it requires input from stakeholders.

Conditions for a waiver include a state imposing its own standards to prepare students for college and careers, creating a turnaround program for the worst-performing schools, and setting evaluation standards for teachers and principals.

South Carolina's testing system already addresses much of what's required, though Zais will look for ways to improve it, Ragley said.

The state has standards for what students must learn in each grade since its 1998 law, and has since 2001 issued annual report cards on each school and district, based on tests.

As an alternative to the impractical threat of a state takeover, South Carolina's former schools chief Jim Rex in 2007 launched the Palmetto Priority initiative, which provides schools that consistently earn poor marks extra assistance from the state and collaboration with colleges.

Last week's guidelines on the waiver even echo the state's terminology, requiring that states publicly identify "priority schools."

"The state system's pretty solid," Ragley said. "We're already ahead of the curve."

But the state will have to create a teacher and principal evaluation system that, among other things, measures their students' progress. Zais, who is crafting a salary system that rewards teachers based on performance, welcomes what he calls a focus on the importance of effective instruction and school leadership, Ragley said.

The evaluation system put in the application could serve as the basis of Zais' pay-for-performance model, which legislators would have to approve.