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Bellevue superintendent: Failing schools sends 'wrong message'
The Bellevue School District draws many parents here to ensure their children receive a top education, but earlier this month the district found itself holding a failing grade from the federal government — along with nearly every other district in the state.
It started with Congress failing to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2007. Washington state was granted a flexibility waiver two years ago, which was not renewed in March after the Legislature failed to comply with the U.S. Department of Education's mandate that student assessment scores be a factor in teacher and principal evaluations.
This was even after the state was granted another year to comply, states Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a letter to Washington Superintendent Randy Dorn, and Washington had been on "high-risk status" since Aug. 14, 2013.
The only way a school could avoid receiving a failing grade was for all students to reach average yearly progress under the state assessment, which meant most of Washington's 295 school districts were marked as failing earlier this month once scores were released in July.
"What this has done is it has created a perception of some schools being not very good, which also then sends a message that the students just aren't as capable, which is just the wrong message," said Bellevue Superintendent Tim Mills. "… I don't know how widespread the perception is, because the Bellevue School District — for many years — has been very well-respected for high quality."
Mills said Bellevue has been using a new teacher evaluation system, which allows flexibility between a teacher and a principal to decide if student assessment scores should factor in. He added teachers do not seem to oppose using student progress as a factor in evaluations, but object to narrowing that scope to state-mandated testing.
"It's not required, and it's not that every teacher has to have that," he said.
Like other failing schools, Bellevue must now set aside 20 percent of its Title I funding — based on the number of students receiving free or reduced meals — to cover the cost of students opting to attend other schools. Mills said the option for supplemental education services isn't limited to struggling students, which doesn't make sense to him.
"This is not about Bellevue schools not wanting to be accountable," he said. "… The reality of it is it's just very political."
While many Washington school districts depend heavily on Title I funding, Mills said Bellevue's share is fairly minimal, given about 21-22 percent of students in the district receive free or reduced meals. He added the district has yet to receive a clear answer whether it can opt out of Title I funding.
"We may not have the option to opt out, however," he said. "… Right now, these are the rules that we need to abide by."
Mills joined 27 other superintendents with the Puget Sound Educational Service District in signing a letter to parents of area students this month, letting them know the ESEA waiver had been pulled. He said there were not too many responses to the letter, but a fair amount of interest in supplemental education services at one of two open house meetings held by the district last week.
The problem is only expected to become more complicated starting this year as Washington joins a number of western states in switching to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. Several BSD schools piloted the test, but were not allowed to see the first year's results. That means it will be even more difficult for teachers to know how to prepare students for this new assessment this year, Mills said.
School starts on Tuesday.