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Washington State Senate revolts against teaching to the test in key vote

Ever since Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon facilitated the coup that gave Republicans control of the Washington State Senate, true bipartisanship in that body has been a rarity. Tom’s disciplined right-wing caucus have battled Senate Democrats over everything from reproductive rights to transportation choices to the state’s constitutional obligation to fully fund our public schools.

So it came as a surprise to many observers when seven Senate Republicans bolted from the right-wing caucus to kill a bill sponsored by one of their own.

Republicans brought up Senator Steve Litzow’s SB 5246, which would require school districts to link teacher evaluations to student test scores as their very last item of business before the 5 PM cutoff for non-budget bills.

The “five o’clock bill” is typically one that the majority wishes to highlight, one that the majority is confident they can pass.

Republican Senators expressed their shock that SB 5246 failed, and several media outlets shared that view. But nobody should have been surprised at this outcome.

The Senate’s rejection of SB 5246 is part of a growing national uprising against bad education policies that, in the name of data and accountability, have turned classrooms into test prep centers, eroding quality education in favor of a too-narrow and demoralizing focus on test scores.

Although Washington media outlets have been slow to notice this growing movement of parents, teachers, and students, it is gaining national prominence as legislatures and school officials begin to resist these flawed policies.

In recent years, many states have mandated that student test scores be used as a primary factor in evaluating teachers – including whether or not they keep their jobs. Despite criticisms that such requirements ignore specific needs or issues students may have that are outside teacher control, and reports that these rules disadvantage low-income and minority students, states have pressed ahead with these policies.

One of the results is a teaching profession that feels demoralized as their curriculum is narrowed to focus solely on test scores.

Studies have shown students are learning fewer subjects, with less instructional time in subjects like art, music, history, and science so that teachers can keep their jobs by focusing only on what will be on the test.

In some extreme cases, teachers and administrators have been caught rigging test scores to prevent layoffs and school closures tied to low scores. Michelle Rhee linked teacher evaluations to test scores when she ran the District of Columbia’s school system. She claimed the policy led to dramatic gains in test scores.

But in reality, much of the gains were the product of cheating that Rhee is alleged to have covered up, as teachers and principals feared for their jobs.

Linking employee evaluations to scores and specific data outcomes is uncommon in the private sector. Microsoft abandoned its reviled stack ranking system after finally admitting it was doing more damage to morale than it was helping the company.

The combination of parent outrage at students being overtested, concern about the narrowed curriculum, and anger at seeing teachers quitting the profession because they’re told to teach to the test has led to a broad-based, bipartisan public revolt against standardized testing policies.

Last month NPR examined the pushback against teaching to the test and found remarkable bipartisan agreement on the need to deemphasize testing, especially as it relates to the new Common Core standards:

But there’s growing backlash to Common Core, and conservatives and liberals increasingly are voicing similar concerns: that the standards take a one-size-fits-all approach, create a de facto national curriculum, put too much emphasis on standardized tests and undermine teacher autonomy.

[…]

“This is a set of standards that does not reflect the experience of many groups of students served by public education, does not reflect the concerns that many parents have for what they want to see in their education, and that really doubles down on a testing-and-punish regime that has proven to be the wrong approach to improving public education,” Karp says.

[…]

“From the conservative side, there is an understanding of the dangerousness of standardization. And from sort of a libertarian perspective, there’s suspicion of government control of what students learn that really resonates with me as a teacher who wants some autonomy,” Cody says. “I don’t want to be so tied to filling their heads with this predetermined list of things.”

The backlash has materialized in several states that span the spectrum from red to blue. In 2012, Idaho voters resoundingly rejected laws that tied teacher performance to test scores. In New York an outcry against testing from parents across the state forced the legislature to begin revising the state’s approach to testing last month. The Washington Senate’s rejection of SB 5246 is part of this truly bipartisan resistance against these flawed and unpopular laws.

SB 5246 was touted as a necessary move to satisfy a federal Department of Education mandate that teacher evaluations be linked to test scores or else lose $38 million in funding. In a guest column published in the Seattle Times last month, I argued that this mandate was likely a bluff and that Washington legislators should follow the lead of their colleagues in California, where legislators rejected a federal testing demand without consequence.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn responded in the Times last week trying to rally support for linking teacher evaluations to test scores.

But his arguments failed to persuade senators who have a more important audience: their own constituents. Democrats have suggested that Republicans brought the bill to a vote despite knowing it would fail in order to use it as a campaign issue:

State Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said Republican leaders knew the bill would fail but brought it up anyway so they could use the vote in the upcoming midterm elections.

That’s possible, but if true, it would be a foolish strategy for the Republicans. As we’ve seen, the culture of standardized testing in our schools is becoming deeply unpopular. Voters from across the political spectrum are turning against policies that link teacher evaluations to those test scores.

Any candidate, regardless of party, that runs on a platform that includes mandating such a link is not likely to fare well this fall.

By rejecting bills like Litzow’s, Washington legislators can get back to the real task at hand: complying with the McCleary decision and fully funding our public schools as required by Artice IX of our Constitution. That would include restoring voter-approved Initiative 728, which sensibly requires smaller class sizes.

One Comment

  1. Posted February 19th, 2014 at 6:31 PM | Permalink

    I commend the Republican senators who demonstrated a willingness to listen to reason in the midst of a heated debate, and who have ended Rodney Tom’s reign.

    I applaud the Democrats who maintained faithfulness to students and their teachers who need an environment of trust and mutual commitment as they work to maintain this democracy.

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