Another test-score battle begins

Lawmakers, teachers and the state public schools chief are gearing up for another battle over whether student test scores should be used to evaluate teachers and principals.

By Jerry Cornfield

Lawmakers, teachers and the state public schools chief are gearing up for another battle over whether student test scores should be used to evaluate teachers and principals.

State Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, introduced two bills last week that would require that results from state student assessments be calculated into teacher performance reviews, starting with the 2016-17 school year.

Federal education leaders are demanding that Washington chisel the requirement into law if the state wants to regain a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.

The state lost the waiver last year, meaning the state and 297 public school districts couldn’t spend about $40 million in federal money the way they wanted. It also meant that 1,916 schools across the state were deemed failing by the U.S. Department of Education, and letters had to be sent to parents explaining why.

Through much of the 2014 legislative session, Litzow, Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn and Gov. Jay Inslee tried to get lawmakers on board.

But they collided with the statewide teachers union, the Washington Education Association. Its leaders staunchly oppose the federal dictate and insist that the evaluation process created by state lawmakers is working as intended, weeding out less-talented teachers.

The union flexed political muscle to keep most Democratic allies from bending.

And in a deliciously dramatic moment in the state Senate last session, a bill originally crafted by a Democratic senator to appease the feds was brought up for a vote by Litzow.

It was defeated 28-19, with 20 Democrats — including the original author, Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe of Bothell — and eight Republicans voting against the measure.

That didn’t end the scuffle.

In the ensuing days, Inslee met with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to verify what the state needed to do to avoid becoming the first to lose its waiver.

Then he and Dorn drafted a new bill and tried to persuade lawmakers to vote on it, which they wouldn’t.

“I take my hat off to the WEA,” Dorn said in August of the teachers union. “They did a better job than we did. Maybe this time we can get past the rhetoric and propaganda and do what’s right for kids.”

Litzow isn’t predicting how the legislative rematch will turn out. He thought he had enough Democrats in tow last year. He won’t make the same mistake this time.

“We’re going out and having conversations right now,” he said.

Inslee expended political capital last year trying to get lawmakers to implement a test-scores provision for evaluating teachers, and he has nothing to show for it. It’s not clear how hard he’ll push this go-round. Litzow said he’s not spoken with the governor on the subject.

Superintendents of school districts mostly avoided the fray in 2014, but might be engaged this year.

At legislative hearings last fall and earlier this session, superintendents expressed frustration at receiving federal money they couldn’t spend due to restrictions related to the loss of the No Child Left Behind waiver. A requirement to ensure student access to private tutors exposed some families to unscrupulous hard-sell tactics, the superintendents said.

Oh, and sending letters to parents telling them their child attends a failing school hurt morale, they said.

The WEA, meanwhile, is still opposed to using student test scores in evaluating teachers.

“It makes no sense to dramatically change our successful teacher evaluation system when Congress appears ready to rewrite the federal law,” said WEA spokesman Rich Wood. “To really help our state’s students, the Legislature should focus on its paramount duty to fully fund K-12 education this session.”

Let the battle begin.

Jerry Cornfield is a political reporter who covers Olympia for The Daily Herald in Everett, which is among the Washington state newspapers in the Sound Publishing group. He can be contacted at jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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