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Originally published Thursday, February 13, 2014 at 4:51 PM

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Guest: Consider test scores in teacher evaluations

If Washington does not require schools to consider test scores in teacher evaluations, the state could lose $38 million in federal funding, writes guest columnist Randy Dorn.

Special to The Times

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GRIDLOCK between Republicans and Democrats is threatening to cost Washington state control of $38 million a year in federal education funding.

At issue are the components that make up a teacher’s evaluation. One of those components is student growth data, which is the difference in a student’s test scores from year to year.

Current state law says, “Student growth data ... must be based on multiple measures that can include classroom-based, school-based, district-based, and state-based” tests.

The key word is “can.” It’s not required that state tests be used as one of the factors in determining student growth data. But the federal government believes that state tests ought to be required when calculating student growth.

Depending on your perspective, the feds have a carrot or a stick to make that happen: It’s called the No Child Left Behind Act. Passed in 2001, it requires schools to meet certain annual student growth targets that many people, including me, believe are unrealistic.

In 2012 and in 2013, Washington state secured waivers from some of the No Child Left Behind Act’s requirements. But our 2013 waiver was given “high-risk” status because of the can-versus-must language issue in state law.

That’s where the $38 million comes in. If we don’t get a waiver in 2014, we go back to No Child Left Behind, which would impose increasingly harsh penalties if targets aren’t met annually.

One penalty is that a school or district not meeting the federal act’s requirements must set aside 20 percent of the federal money, $38 million, it receives to help low-income students, called Title I funds. The set-aside money is to be given to supplemental educational services, which are companies that provide tutoring and have little to no accountability for the money.

This session, three state bills have been introduced requiring state tests to be used as one of multiple measures when computing student growth, if those data are relevant to a particular teacher’s subjects and grade level. This change would not be implemented until the 2016-17 school year.

Two of the three bills did not advance, but one still remains for legislators to consider. Strangely, the bills have been opposed by elements of both political camps. Those on the right feel that the requirement is an unwarranted federal intrusion. Those on the left, mainly driven by lobbying from the teachers’ union, are concerned in general about student growth data being factored into teacher evaluations.

Both are mistaken.

I support this change for two reasons. The first is so districts and schools can use their Title I money on proven programs that support students’ academic success.

The second reason is that it’s simply the right thing to do. Using state tests as one measure in teacher effectiveness gives us consistency in evaluations. Using only district-based tests, for example, won’t work in the same way because each district may use a different test.

Our teacher evaluation system was rebuilt in 2009. It reflects current research regarding what it takes to be a quality teacher. Student test scores are a part of the new system. When used properly, I believe they can provide valid information about a teacher’s effectiveness.

I want to be clear, though: I believe that they are a valid measure, but certainly never the only measure.

I’ve been a teacher and a principal. I know that evaluating teachers requires a number of factors. I’ve been a staunch supporter of our new evaluation system because I want all of our teachers to have the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.

Randy Dorn is Washington state’s superintendent of public instruction.

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