AS Washington’s state legislators return to session, they are faced with a demand from the U.S. Department of Education to make high-stakes standardized tests a required part of teacher evaluations. If they do not make the change, the department is threatening to take back more than $40 million in federal funding and to withdraw our exemption from the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law.
It is an empty threat that the Legislature should refuse. Linking teacher evaluations to test scores undermines quality education in our schools and demoralizes our teachers. The Legislature should instead follow the lead of two dozen other states that have pushed back against federal education policy threats and should craft better solutions.
Washington’s teacher-evaluation system was developed after much public debate and reflects a balanced approach that emphasizes quality instruction, rather than a narrow focus on test scores.
Under the current system, districts can include test scores as part of a holistic evaluation process, but they are not required to do so. The Department of Education insists that test scores be included as part of all teacher evaluations in Washington, overriding the sensible compromise that has worked well in our state.
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In states that have linked all teacher evaluations to test scores, the results are troubling.
The National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing reported last year that more teachers have been forced to narrow their curriculum to teach to the test. Teachers are becoming demoralized as they see their students missing out on important lessons, particularly in subjects such as art and music that cannot be subjected to standardized tests.
Parents are expressing frustration that their children are not getting a comprehensive education. Concerns regarding standardized tests already have produced resistance in Washington state, including the successful boycott of the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP assessment, in several Seattle schools last year.
Rather than cave to federal threats, Gov. Jay Inslee and legislators ought to follow the lead of their colleagues in state houses across the country who have refused these demands without losing federal dollars or waivers.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan threatened to withhold federal dollars from California schools if the state delayed the implementation of certain standardized tests by a year. California Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature called Duncan’s bluff last fall. Federal education funds continue to flow to California.
Other states have begun to resist federal education mandates, spurred by parent anger over excessive testing. Leaders in the New York state Legislature recently announced plans to delay implementation of the Common Core standards after an outcry about overtesting from parents on Long Island.
Massachusetts already halted implementation of the Common Core standards in order to protect its own widely praised state assessment system. Twenty-three states, spanning the political spectrum, have begun to push back against test-heavy federal requirements.
None of these states have lost federal funding as a result of their actions, suggesting Washington state has nothing to fear if it refuses the Department of Education’s demand.
Inslee and the Legislature should reach out to these states and work together to craft a better set of education policies together, rather than simply take what is handed to them from Washington, D.C.
States are laboratories of innovation, and are more responsive to parent concerns. States can resist unfair federal demands and instead craft solutions that address our children’s educational needs without turning our schools into test prep factories and demoralizing our teachers. Washington should take the lead.
Robert Cruickshank is a parent in Seattle and was a senior communications adviser to former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.