Teaching Profession

NCLB Waiver Loss Puts Washington State on Uncertain Ground

By Alyson Klein — April 30, 2014 6 min read
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Washington state faces a potentially messy and complicated transition back to accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act now that the U.S. Department of Education has revoked its waiver from some requirements of the law, widely considered outdated and flawed.

The April 24 move—which made Washington the first state to lose its coveted flexibility—leaves policymakers pondering the implications for schools in the Evergreen State, as well as in other states that have been told their waivers are in jeopardy.

The Education Department has awarded waivers to 43 states and the District of Columbia so far. And the waivers in three states remain on “high risk” status: Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon. Like Washington, all three are endangered over the issue of teacher evaluation.

The department’s decision came as no surprise to Washington state officials, who have said for weeks that they fully expected to lose the flexibility. At issue: Washington state doesn’t require state test scores to be integrated into teacher evaluations—instead districts can choose to include either state or local assessment results.

Policymakers, including Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, and Randy Dorn, the elected, nonpartisan state chief, urged lawmakers to approve legislation changing that rule, but they were rebuffed by both Democrats and Republicans in the legislature.

Mr. Dorn is hoping that Washington state can hang onto some elements of the accountability system negotiated under the waiver agreement, even if not for federal purposes, including gauging student achievement based on student progress. The state is already planning to continue to identify “priority” (or lowest-performing) schools, along with “focus” (or other struggling) schools, as do waiver states.

In the Doghouse

Washington state may have been the first to have its No Child Left Behind Act waiver pulled, but other states may not be far behind. In all cases, teacher-evaluation issues are the culprit.


SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

But Washington state will have to return to the NCLB law’s widely disparaged yardstick, gauging schools based on adequate yearly progress, or AYP. Since Washington and other states were supposed to get 100 percent of students to proficiency by the 2013-14 school year, Mr. Dorn expects that more than 90 percent of the schools in Washington now will be labeled as failing.

“The mechanism for doing that calculation might be on the edge of almost criminal,” he said. “I think our new system of accountability is a better measurement of how schools are doing today.” He said he will be a “hard-nosed advocate” for continuing to measure student growth for state accountability purposes.

Funding Implications

What’s more, districts in Washington state will lose control over nearly $40 million in federal in Title I money for disadvantaged students. That’s because schools will now have to begin setting aside that money for NCLB-prescribed remedies for low-performing schools, such as tutoring and school choice.

That will likely mean that schools that receive the Title I dollars will have to stop offering services such as extended-day and enrichment, Mr. Dorn said. Schools may even have to lay off staff, Mr. Inslee said.

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.

But that may not be politically possible. For its part, the Washington Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, stands by its decision to lobby against the policy change that might have allowed the state to keep its waiver.

“WEA believes the Washington legislature did the right thing last session when it rejected U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s inflexible and bureaucratic demands,” the union’s president, Kim Mead, wrote in a statement. “Republicans and Democrats alike saw that Duncan’s failed federal mandates would have done nothing to help Washington’s kids or their teachers, but rather would impose broken federal law on our students.”

Mr. Dorn however, thinks the situation may be different next session if lawmakers are able to attach some sort of financial sweeteners to a legislative change.

“I believe that if money is on the table, it will change the playing field,” he said.

Kate Tromble, the director of government relations for the Education Trust, which advocates on behalf of disadvantaged students, said revoking the waiver was the right thing to do. “The department needed to set a bottom line” to make it clear to states that it is serious about waiver enforcement,” she said. “It is unfortunate because Washington students are going to bear the burden of the failure of adults” in the state, she said.

Assessments, Standards

Ms. Tromble is worried, however, about what may happen next year when all Washington students take the rigorous next school year aligned to the Common Core State Standards. The test may prove to be a lot tougher than Washington’s current exam—and all schools may be labeled as “failing” to make progress.

“It’s important that we hold schools accountable, but schools need to feel the system is legitimate,” she said. The impetus is on Washington state leaders to find a way to work through this issue, she said.

So far, the department has moved to get tough on states that didn’t follow through on their waiver plans when it comes to teacher evaluation.

But it’s been a different story when it comes to another requirement for waiver states: using assessments aligned to college- and career-ready standards, said Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at the New American Foundation, a think tank.

States, including Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Utah, originally said they planned to use participation in either the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—the two groups developing tests that align with the common-core standards—to fulfill that requirement. But those states subsequently dropped out of the consortia. The Education Department asked the states for their backup plans, but so far hasn’t put any of them on high-risk status.

Coming down hard on those states may carry more political risk than getting tough on teacher evaluation, Ms. Hyslop said, given the push back around the country on the Obama administration’s championship of common core.

“Teacher evaluation is a very politically charged issue, but common core is even more so,” she said. “Stepping in and really getting tough on assessments I think would have a lot more political ramifications.”

Reauthorization Debate

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who may be next in line to head up the Senate education committee, said in a statement that the waiver’s revocation points to the need to revise NCLB, the current version of Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“What’s most important now is that we all do our part to rectify this situation,” said Ms. Murray, who reportedly spoke to the Education Department on her home state’s behalf. “I have made clear time and again that I will work with anyone who is willing to reauthorize ESEA, but, to date, making progress on updating this law has been an unnecessarily partisan fight.”

At a hearing of the House education committee April 29, U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., accused Secretary Duncan of being inconsistent in how he is enforcing the waiver requirements among the states.

Specifically, Mr. Kline doesn’t understand why Illinois—which doesn’t conform to the Education Department’s teacher-evaluation timeline—recently got a long-delayed waiver, while Washington lost its flexibility because its teacher-evaluation system didn’t conform with the department’s vision.

“How do states expect to find consistency in those circumstances?” he asked.

Mr. Duncan explained, essentially, that Washington state went back on its promises on teacher evaluation.

A version of this article appeared in the May 07, 2014 edition of Education Week as Loss of NCLB Waiver Puts Washington State On Uncertain Ground


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