Dispute over test scores puts federal education funds at risk

OLYMPIA – A dispute on how student test scores are used in evaluating teachers threatens to leave school districts unable to spend millions of dollars the way they want on instruction for their lowest performing students.

State law says scores on statewide assessments are one factor that can be used in determining the performance of teachers and principals, but it’s not the only way. If districts prefer, they instead can use student scores on school-based, classroom-based or district-wide tests.

But federal education officials say scores on state tests must be used if Washington hopes to get an extension on its waiver from the federal law known as the No Child Left Behind Act.

The waiver, which expires in August, will net the state roughly $38 million in this school year.

On Sunday, Gov. Jay Inslee met with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to find out if he is really prepared to ding the state if it doesn’t change its teacher evaluation system. The sit-down occurred in Washington D.C. where Inslee had traveled for a meeting of the National Governors Association.

“Our discussion today was productive. I think there’s a possibility to develop a positive path forward that has a realistic chance of success,” Inslee said in a statement.

The governor said he would be discussing “our options” with lawmakers and Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn upon his return to Olympia.

“Time is short this session so I hope we can reach resolution quickly, and I’ll have more to say in the coming days,” he said.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who serves on the Senate panel which handles education policy, also urged Duncan to extend the waiver when they two recently spoke.

“Although Senator Murray can’t offer any blanket assurances that the waiver will be granted, she is committed to continuing to advocate for its extension because she understands the impact losing (the money) would have on schools,” her spokesman Matt McAlvanah said in an email.

The federal education law set a 2014 deadline for every child in the nation to be reading and doing math at grade level. States that meet certain requirements regarding student growth and evaluating teachers, including using test data in the evaluations, have been granted waivers from the law.

Washington obtained a conditional waiver in 2011 as it was in the process of setting up its evaluation process. In August 2013 it received a one-year extension.

At that time, the U.S. Department of Education made clear state test scores must be one of the measures of student growth used.

Inslee said he planned to present new proposals to Duncan on how the state can satisfy the demands of the federal agency. Inslee said they are a result of conversations with lawmakers and Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, but would not divulge details.

“I think we’re going to have a pretty unified approach,” Inslee said.

That would be a change from what’s transpired in the Legislature to date.

The House hasn’t seriously considered any bills modifying the evaluation system. When the Senate did last week, 21 Democrats and seven conservative Republicans banded together to block it.

Lawmakers in both parties say they want the extension. Yet for now majorities in the House and Senate contend the state’s year-old evaluation system will hold teachers and principals accountable for the performance of students as the federal department demands, without making any changes.

“Our teachers and principals have built a very strong evaluation system, probably the strongest in the nation. We need to quit changing it every year,” said Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell. “We cannot lose this waiver. But if we’d allowed that bill to pass, the governor wouldn’t be in the game when he meets with the secretary. Who would care?”

McAuliffe has come under fire because the bill she voted against last week is nearly identical to one she authored in January.

She said she’s come to the conclusion the state’s standardized tests do not measure student growth as envisioned by the federal law because they are only “dipsticks in time.” And with the state changing tests next year, any revisions should be put off until then, she said.

Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, sponsored Senate Bill 5246 which went down in defeat last week. He said he stripped out the most controversial language and all that essentially remained was changing “can to must” on the use of the test scores.

“If we do not continue the waiver, the penalties are severe,” he said in the floor debate. “The Obama Administration has been very clear that they will not provide the waiver to our state.”

One consequence of losing the waiver is nearly every school in the state would have to inform parents that their child attends a school that, in the eyes of the federal government, is failing.

Another is school districts would have to spend their allotments on services such as off-campus tutoring programs for low-performing students and transportation needed to get those students to the tutors.

Funding associated with the waiver is substantial

In the 2011-12 school year, it amounted to $658,279 for the Everett School District, $366,968 for the Edmonds School District and $467,403 for the Mukilteo School District, according to figures released by the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus. Most districts are getting more money in the figure is higher for the current school year.

Superintendent Ken Hoover of the Monroe School District doesn’t want to lose the waiver and the roughly $100,000 it means for his district.

“I’m still cautiously optimistic,” he said of retaining the waiver. “Our legislators are interested in doing what makes sense. It’s a matter of coalescing behind that message.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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