State’s ‘No Child’ waiver in jeopardy

US Department of Education places waiver request on ‘high-risk’ status because of teacher evaluation rules

Staff writerAugust 16, 2013 

The U.S. Department of Education said Thursday that Washington state’s new teacher evaluation system fails to meet federal standards for measuring how much teachers contribute to student academic growth.

Department officials said they’re placing Washington’s request for a waiver from provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act on “high-risk” status.

Oregon and Kansas received similar warnings. Washington is one of 40 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have sought the waivers.

At stake in Washington is whether the state will continue to be exempt from some of the more onerous provisions of the federal law, which requires that 100 percent of students meet state standards by 2014.

Failure to reach that goal could require school districts to take steps such as using some federal money to hire private companies to tutor students at failing schools or providing students free transportation to nonfailing schools.

The Education Department said it will give Washington one more school year – until May 2014 – to resolve the issues.

Educators say the 100-percent mark is virtually impossible to meet. But failure to do so would mean that nearly every school in the state would be classified by the federal government as in need of improvement under NCLB.

In a letter sent to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, Deborah Delisle, assistant secretary of the federal Education Department, said Washington’s latest request to extend a conditional waiver granted last summer fails to meet all federal requirements.

The biggest problem, according to Delisle’s letter, is that the state gave local school districts discretion over whether to use state test results in determining student growth ratings as part of teacher evaluations.

State law governing evaluations – initially approved in 2010 and updated in 2012 – says measurements of student growth must be based on multiple measures. They can include classroom-based tests, schoolwide tests, district tests and state tests.

Dorn said he warned legislators from both parties that the law’s language “didn’t go far enough.” But he said they were preoccupied with budget problems and other issues.

He believes, however, that “everybody knew the clear intent” of the law, which is that year-to-year improvements or declines in state test scores would be used to evaluate teachers.

Dorn said he will meet with legislators again to explain what’s needed. He believes the fix is simple: Change the law’s language from “can” to “must” when it comes to using state tests when those scores are available and appropriate.

“We will ask for that legislation,” he said.

State Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, said he shares the Department of Education’s concerns.

Litzow, who chairs the Senate education committee, said in a news release that Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his team have “provided clear guidelines for determining student learning growth.”

He pledged to work with Dorn to bring new legislation forward in January.

A spokeswoman for the Washington Education Association — the state’s largest teacher union — said the issue will likely come up when Dorn meets next month with WEA’s new president, Kim Mead.

Will WEA lobby hard to block legislative changes demanded by the federal government?

“It’s too early to say,” said WEA spokeswoman Linda Mullen.

One problem in requiring the use of state tests to evaluate teachers is that not every Washington student is tested every year. State tests don’t begin until third grade, and they’re only given in core subjects: reading, writing, math and science.

Even then, not every student is tested in all subjects each year. Writing and science tests are given only in certain years.

High school students currently take state tests only in 10th grade, although those who don’t pass can retake them.

And the entire state testing system will be overhauled in the next few years, when the state switches from its own homegrown standards to the Common Core standards adopted by most states.

Mullen estimates that somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of Washington teachers teach subjects and grade levels assessed by state tests. Dorn put the figure lower, at roughly 18 percent.

Requiring the use of state tests for only those teachers would set up two different evaluation systems, Mullen said.

She also said judging teachers based on one year’s bump or dip in test scores isn’t reliable. She said it takes three to four years’ worth of data to show a valid trend.

Federal education officials had previously put Washington on notice. In a letter to Dorn delivered in March, Delisle pointed out that Washington had yet to determine how to measure growth for teachers of students in nontested grades and subjects.

Congress has been trying to renew the NCLB law since 2007. But so far, it has not reached agreement.

The Obama administration came up with the waiver concept in an effort to forestall the most serious sanctions due to kick in next year. Congress could still alter those provisions before then.

Dorn has 30 days to formally respond to the Department of Education’s criticisms. And federal officials said they’ll be doing monthly check-ins with Washington state.

Dorn said that’s their attempt to “try to turn the heat up.”

But he added: “We’re going to do what we think is best for students in the state of Washington.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 debbie.cafazzo@ @DebbieCafazzo

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