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Originally published May 12, 2014 at 5:04 PM | Page modified May 13, 2014 at 10:47 AM

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Guest: Losing federal No Child Left Behind waiver for state’s schools is a wake-up call

Though Washington state has lost the federal education waiver, the state can lead by developing an assessment system that improves teaching and learning

Special to The Times


AS the first state to lose the waiver under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Washington is in a unique position to improve education reform.

The reasons legislators voted against using standardized test scores in teacher evaluations are valid. We need to take a different approach to accountability.

High-stakes standardized test scores do not accurately measure student growth or teacher effectiveness. This is the core issue, and tops the long list of valid arguments against the use of standardized testing to drive improvements in education.

Standardized tests are a measure of how students perform on a single test. They don’t measure the progress any student has made in a school year. Disadvantaged learners fail these tests repeatedly for many reasons. Special-education students, and students who lack supports outside of school, might be working a year or more below the grade level at which they’re tested. English-language learners are not tested in their native languages. Many might have highly effective teachers who help them progress a year or more, yet they still fail annual tests.

For example, a third-grade student who is disadvantaged in any manner might fail a third-grade test because he or she is working at first- or second-grade level. The following year, that student might progress a year or more, yet might fail the fourth-grade test because he or she is still working at a third-grade level. The teacher might in fact be excellent.

When students fail these dreaded yearly tests, they are frequently assigned to extra classes in the failed subject. Instead of art, music, drama and other enrichment classes, they would take double math or language arts. Despite this, they might fail the state tests again.

Some special-ed students get a break due to their Individual Education Plan (IEP). They might finally pass the state test at a lower cut score, but at a cost. They rapidly figure out they’re passing with lower scores, enforcing low self-esteem in relation to testing and academic mastery.

The negative consequences of high-stakes testing are well documented, and the national backlash is likely to grow as new Common Core testing results in lower scores for more students. If we want the Common Core standards to improve education, we must decouple them from high-stakes testing. The testing is putting the Common Core at risk.

A relatively easy fix is a complete shift away from high-stakes, end-of-course testing to flexible, formative assessment. Formative assessments accurately measure student progress and teacher effectiveness. They are used at intervals to determine whether students are mastering what is taught. Teachers use this information to help students learn what is expected.

Formative assessments give the same data as high-stakes tests — how many students have achieved grade-level standards, and how many have not. But this is achieved without failure. Measuring progress increases student motivation and eliminates the downward spiral of demoralization and disengagement.

The loss of the federal education waiver should wake us up to the need for changes in state and national accountability requirements. It’s not the failure of legislators or teachers unions, as some allege. The failure is in rigid federal mandates that don’t make sense.

Every Washington school is now mandated to send a letter to all parents and guardians informing them that their school is in failure status, and they have the right to send their student to a stronger school — even though all are in failure status.

This is because we (and all other states) have failed to meet the federal mandate that 100 percent of our students test proficient in math and language arts. Seattle Public Schools will lose control over $2.8 million in Title I funds, which must now be allocated to added transportation costs and private tutoring for eligible students.

Washington could probably win back the waiver next year by embracing the accountability system we just rejected. Or we can turn this loss into a far more significant victory by developing an assessment system that authentically improves teaching and learning. We’ve already taken the lead. Let’s lead with a solution, and surely others will follow.

Sharon Peaslee is president of the Seattle School Board.

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