For the fourth time in as many years, the Washington Legislature is taking a look at teacher and principal evaluations, responding to pressure from the federal government to force school districts to judge performance partly on student test scores.
Three competing proposals were up for discussion Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee.
One would require school districts to give heavy weight to test scores — at least 50 percent in some sections of job performance reviews. The second would make test data a mandatory part of teacher and principal evaluations but does not mandate a percentage.
The third bill, requested by the superintendent of public instruction, is similar to the second but delays implementation until the 2016-2017 school year.
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If the evaluation law isn’t fixed to require test scores as a factor in evaluations, the state is in danger of losing federal dollars for education and a waiver from the federal government from the requirements of the so-called No Child Left Behind law, educators say.
Last year’s revision of the law gave districts some flexibility about how they might use testing data. Since teacher contracts are negotiated locally, districts are making their own decisions about how to interpret the law and most are not including state test scores in their evaluation systems.
“Most of them are simply postponing that conversation,” said Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Alan Burke. “They have spent most of their time focusing on the classroom-based tools because those affect all teachers.”
The federal education law set a 2014 deadline for every child in the nation to be reading and doing math at grade level. The U.S. Department of Education has been granting waivers from that rule to states that meet certain requirements, including using test data in teacher evaluations.
Washington was given a conditional waiver to give it time to fix the system.
Burke said losing the waiver could force nearly every school in the state to send a letter home to parents saying they are failing to meet the requirements of the federal education law.
It may also change the way school districts can spend nearly $40 million in federal dollars or possibly make some money unavailable to some districts, state officials believe.
Rich Wood, a spokesman for the state’s largest teacher’s union, considers that possibility an empty threat. Wood, of the Washington Education Association, said decisions shouldn’t be made based on speculation about what may or may not happen in “dysfunctional Washington, D.C.”
“It’s flat out incorrect if anyone suggests that we will lose federal funding because of this issue,” Wood said.
Sen. Steve Litzow, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he is confident the Legislature will come up with a compromise to revise the law this session. Litzow, R-Mercer Island, is sponsoring the option that would require statewide testing to make up at least 50 percent of the data behind some parts of evaluations.
His bill includes another proposal that is likely to generate debate in Olympia — a change in the way teacher seniority is used as a factor in school district actions such as layoffs and transfers.
Litzow wants to see seniority become only a 10 percent factor in those decisions.
“Right now, it’s virtually an all-seniority system,” Litzow said.
Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, is sponsoring the proposal that would leave the evaluation percentages up to school districts. She said it’s important to make the change in a way that will not disrupt the new evaluation system in its first year in statewide use.
She thinks avoiding the issue, as the union suggests, could hurt children and teachers.
“I visit schools and I see teachers and principals and para-educators working so hard for these children,” McAuliffe said. “I don’t want to call them failing. That’s not fair. They are doing an amazing job helping our children learn.”