Washington State Group Builds Support for Standards, Tests

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After almost eight years of standards-based reform in Washington state, it might seem that all the laws have been interpreted, all the questions answered, all the debates settled.

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But that's hardly the case. With several more years before pieces of the plan even take effect, both educators and parents sometimes wonder just what it all means.

Throughout it all, the Partnership for Learning, an independent, nonprofit group founded by members of the business community, has worked to explain and build support for the state's learning goals, its new assessments, and its system designed to hold schools accountable for results.

"It became clear soon after the legislation passed that this is a long haul," said Stephen Nielsen, the executive director of the partnership, and a past director of the state school boards' association.

For several years after its founding in 1994, the Partnership for Learning primarily directed its message toward business and education leaders, while also using newspaper editorials, community meetings, and easy-to-read printed materials to reach the general public.

Innovative communication tools—including displaying sample questions from new state tests at McDonald's restaurants—have also been used.

While the partnership has received most of its funding from businesses and foundations, "it has been, in a very real way, a community resource," said Marc Frazer, the vice president for education policy at Washington Mutual, a Seattle- based bank.

And the group's work appears to have paid off. A poll conducted last December showed that roughly 80 percent of voters were in support of setting higher standards and believed that tests tied to those standards could help schools improve.

'Not Deep Enough'

But Mr. Nielsen is taking on a new challenge as the partnership steps up its efforts to communicate directly with classroom teachers.

"What we discovered is that while the work has been positive, it hasn't been deep enough," he said. "We want educators to have a full understanding of what education reform means to them. If they don't know how all this works, how will this be successful?"

To get the process started, the partnership held focus groups this winter with teachers to better understand their concerns, many of which revolve around the new Washington Assessment of Student Learning tests.

Some teachers had heard rumors that all special education students would be required to take the same tests. And many teachers still worry about whether they'll have jobs if their students don't meet the standards.

But while the accountability system—passed in 1999 and now being phased in—contains a provision that would allow the state eventually to assume control of schools that failed to improve, the system is not designed to be punitive.

"It's built completely on help and assistance," Mr. Nielsen said.

One of the vehicles the partnership will use to communicate with teachers, as well as other state residents, on such issues is its Web site. Many of the group's brochures are already available on the site, in addition to essential information about the reform program.

But Mr. Nielsen wants to improve it, perhaps by adding testimonials from teachers about how the standards have changed their instructional practices and attitudes about teaching.

Beyond that, Mr. Nielsen has plans to direct more information to parents.

The biggest challenge now facing the organization, he said, is that "it's just darn expensive to get the word out."

The partnership had been operating with an annual budget of about $600,000. But to increase its efforts to communicate with teachers, the group will need about $1.5 million.

Because the business community has a deep commitment to educational improvement, Mr. Frazer said, raising the needed money shouldn't be too hard.

"The good news is that the partnership has achieved credibility with educators as well as members of the public," he said. "Now we need to use that as the state gets further into implementation."

Terry Bergeson, the state superintendent of public instruction, said the partnership has provided her with an audience that she would not have been able to reach otherwise.

"I don't have the network that they have," she said, adding that the leaders of the group have served as a good sounding board during difficult points in the reform effort.

'A Huge Culture Shift'

"I have always felt that I could go to them and have an honest discussion," she said. "We could not have done without them what we've done. It's a huge culture shift in our state."

The Partnership for Learning has been successful because its members "came off as reasonable and forward-thinking, but not too far ahead of the public," said Jennifer L. Vranek, the director of benchmarking and state services at the Washington, D.C., office of Achieve. Based in Cambridge, Mass., Achieve was created by governors and business leaders to promote standards-based school improvement on a national level.

"We've recommended to several states that they consider putting in an organization like Partnership for Learning," Ms. Vranek said.

While Washington state has taken a careful, step-by-step approach to improving its schools, that strategy can also have negative side effects.

After a while, Mr. Nielsen said, "people sort of fall asleep" and stop paying attention.

What's more, Mr. Frazer added, legislative seats and other key positions change hands. That's why the organization has consistently had to refine and redirect its message.

"The partnership," Mr. Frazer said, "helps people keep their eye on the ball about why we're doing this."

Vol. 20, Issue 31, Page 19

Published in Print: April 18, 2001, as Washington State Group Builds Support for Standards, Tests
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