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Teaching Profession

Is Waiverless Washington State Still Out in the Cold on Teacher Evaluations?

By Lauren Camera — August 25, 2014 4 min read
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When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced last week that he would allow states to delay using student test scores in teacher evaluations, many in the education world responded this way: “But what about Washington state?”

As you might remember, the Education Department revoked that state’s waiver last August because ... wait for it ... its state laws don’t require student test scores to be used in teacher evaluations.

"[Washington] lost its waiver because they’re not including student growth in their evaluation system and they did not have the statutory authority to do so, and essentially now those requirements aren’t even until next year,” Anne Hyslop, senior education policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, said last week in an interview. “Washington could have had another year to try to change their law and make the policy changes they needed to.”

To be sure, Washington was the only state with a waiver that did not have a law in the books specifically requiring student scores on state tests be used in teacher evaluations. Its law allows school districts to use either state or local tests. Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, and Randy Dorn, the elected, nonpartisan state chief, tried but ultimately failed to convince lawmakers to pass legislation requiring state test scores to be integrated into teacher evaluations.

The Education Department has made it clear to Washington officials that the state could be eligible for a new waiver if it is able to make the necessary changes to its teacher-evaluation system.

The question raised last week upon Duncan’s announcement, however, is whether the department acted too quickly in revoking Washington’s waiver. If it’s allowing states to push back the deadline for using student test scores in teacher evaluations to the 2015-16 school year, or even beyond, was revoking Washington’s waiver justified?

Mr. Dorn isn’t so sure.

“I think they’ve given almost every state breathing room, but not the state of Washington,” Dorn said in an interview Monday.

“They [officials from the Education Department] contacted me three weeks ago and said this would not change a thing for Washington’s situation,” he added. “We say [test scores] can be used, but we don’t say they shall be, so we’re still in that situation. I think we are meeting [the department’s requirement], but they ... want a law that would guarantee that.”

Since Duncan announced the new teacher evaluation flexibility last week, Dorn said state lawmakers have been calling his office asking, “This means we can get our waiver back, right?”

Not so fast.

In fact, it remains unclear whether passing such a teacher-evaluation law is politically possible, given that both Democrats and Republicans opposed the measure when it came to the floor for a vote in the state legislature last year. Dorn called the proposed bill “very reasonable,” but gave it a 50-50 chance of passing next legislative session. In an interview with Education Week last April, he said the situation may be different if lawmakers are able to attach some sort of financial sweeteners to a legislative change.

Until then, the state is in the process of shifting back to the No Child Left Behind Act’s widely disparaged accountability yardstick, gauging schools based on adequate yearly progress, or AYP—something Deb Delisle, the federal department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, admitted is “not simple.”

Most recently, the department rejected Dorn’s request to get out from under a key requirement of NCLB: notifying parents in writing if their school is failing to meet AYP. The letters are supposed to inform families of their schools “failing status” and give kids the chance to transfer to a better-performing school in the same district.

Under NCLB, all students are supposed to be nearing proficiency by the 2013-14 school year, or last school year. Dorn argued that, practically speaking, that means that most schools in Washington state are going to be considered “failing,” so the vast majority parents are getting these letters right now.

The transition back to AYP has been difficult and confusing for everyone, Dorn said, especially parents.

Along with returning to AYP, the biggest ramification of losing the waiver is that Washington lost control over nearly $40 million in federal in Title I money for disadvantaged students, which it had to start setting aside for NCLB-prescribed remedies for low-performing schools, such as tutoring and school choice.

But state education officials are trying to keep intact some key elements of the waiver, such as gauging student achievement based on student progress, and identifying “priority” (or lowest-performing) schools, along with “focus” (or other struggling) schools.

“I think the waivers have run their course,” Dorn said, adding that he supported the waiver offering, but expected it to act as a stopgap measure while Congress worked to overhaul the NCLB law. “I think that maybe the administration should say, ‘You know what? We gave states a release valve to move forward and do the right things for kids. Now it’s time to take a deep breath and, moving forward, we should put some trust in the state.’”