Column: A simple education issue made broader than it needs to be


OLYMPIA — From the stickers, you might think the issue before the Washington Legislature last week was testing in public education.

“More Learning. Less Testing,” they proclaimed.

The stickers and the teachers union members wearing them were there to persuade lawmakers to reject a demand by the federal Department of Education and to accept the negative consequences of failing to meet the No Child Left Behind law.

The worst consequence would be loss of control of $38 million in federal money that helps struggling low-income students.

But the issue isn’t really about testing. Current law requires that student growth data — changes in scores from one test to the next — be one of the factors used in teacher and principal evaluations.

Nothing before the Legislature will change that. Nothing before the Legislature changes the basic structure of the state’s performance-based education system — high statewide standards, help for struggling schools and students, accountability for students and adults, and assessments to measure how everyone is performing.

No, the real issue is whether Washington meets a federal requirement that statewide assessments be among the student growth data used. That’s all.

So what’s the big deal? There is none unless you want to exploit it as an organizing tool or make it the opening salvo in some larger War On Testing.

Supporters of the bills have been outflanked by the teachers union, which has put the onus on the feds, suggesting that the only reason to require use of statewide tests in evaluations is because Education Secretary Arne Duncan has a obsession with them. They are not asserting that loss of the waiver isn’t a big deal.

But Washington state required statewide assessments long before Duncan or his boss — President Obama — were in office. The statewide assessment has value because it is one piece of information that is comparable across schools within a district and across districts within the state.

“Is it really that unreasonable to expect state administered student test scores to play some role in how we evaluate teachers?” asked Ben Rarick, the executive director of the state Board of Education, in an article last week. “They certainly play a role in how we evaluate students, and how we evaluate schools, for that matter.”

The waiver itself has been misrepresented as well. No Child Left Behind passed Congress with bipartisan support and with noble intentions — to force states to address achievement gaps that harm low-income and minority children.

In practice it doesn’t work, yet Congress has not been able to change it. The waivers therefore excuse states from the sanctions in return for promises to use their own methods to address the achievement gap. Rarick dubbed this reform-for-flexibility “a fair trade.”

Somehow, though, it’s been portrayed as federal big footing, as Duncan trying to take away local control.

Gov. Jay Inslee now agrees that the evaluation law must be amended to keep the waiver. But because some want it to be about the broader question of testing, I asked him last week if he still supported the basic tenets of Washington education reform. Specifically, does he believe that statewide assessments should remain central to measuring progress toward meeting our education goals?

At first he was reluctant to join what he termed a philosophical discussion. In a statement released Friday, he was more specific.

“I support statewide assessments,” he said. “I believe assessments are one of multiple measures that can help schools and should be used as part of teacher and principal evaluations, as long as it remains part of collective bargaining.

“Testing is only one component in our effort to improve education programs with new standards that will focus on quality teaching and student success,” he said. “To be fair to students, parents and teachers, we need to fully fund the programs we’re creating.”

During the 2012 campaign, Inslee endorsed much of the reform agenda. And during an endorsement interview with reform advocate Stand For Children, he said he was willing to buck his political allies and use the bully pulpit of his office to do what is right for education.

Is it time for that?

“I think I’m doing that here, and it’s a difficult situation,” he told me Friday. “But I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Peter Callaghan can be reached at


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment

Click here to sign in