As federal lawmakers continue to debate the merits of reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, Minnesota's education leaders picked up some certainty about the next four years Monday with the announcement that the state's waiver has been renewed.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Education announced that Minnesota, North Carolina, Kentucky, New Mexico and Virginia have been awarded four-year waivers to No Child Left Behind. Forty-three states have been awarded waivers, but Monday marked the first time states had received a four-year renewal.

More are likely to be granted as No Child Left Behind, which expired in 2007, continues to be debated. Federal education officials said states need stability now.

"While a strong, bipartisan reauthorization of the law remains our top priority, we want to continue to empower state and district leaders to develop plans designed to improve educational outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, increase equity and improve the quality of instruction," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said. "We will continue to partner with states to support them through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act flexibility process — starting with these five states."

First awarded in 2012, Minnesota's waiver established a new accountability system for schools known as the Multiple Measurement Ratings (MMR) system. For the most part, school leaders prefer the new rating system over the old one, which branded more than half the school districts in the state as "failures."

The waiver also established state Regional Centers of Excellence, teams of content specialists that work with struggling schools to help them improve.

In a conference call with reporters from across the country, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius lauded the progress that Minnesota schools have made under the waiver, particularly as it relates to closing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

As part of the state's waiver application, Minnesota education officials pledged to cut the achievement gap in half by 2017.

"I'm happy to report that we are well on our way to meeting that goal with 59 percent of school districts meeting their targets for math and 65 percent for reading," Cassellius said.

Gov. Mark Dayton heralded the waiver renewal, saying it would allow the state's progress to continue.

"Today's waivers are a tribute to the outstanding leadership of Commissioner Brenda Cassellius who has championed our state's education reform initiatives," Dayton said. "We have more work ahead to close the achievement gaps and to ensure that all students receive the educations they need to succeed."

Duncan and state education leaders called on Congress to reauthorize No Child Left Behind and put in place a new federal law that makes investments in high-poverty schools, gives struggling schools extra support and addresses funding inequities.