NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Vermont’s heroic response shows the way on No Child Left Behind letters

Ear­li­er this year, Wash­ing­ton leg­is­la­tors reject­ed a demand from U.S. Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Arne Dun­can to require teacher eval­u­a­tions to be based, in part, on stu­dent test scores. 

One of the pri­ma­ry threats Dun­can used in demand­ing Wash­ing­ton State force schools to teach to the test was that if this change was not made, the state would lose its waiv­er from many of the terms of the noto­ri­ous No Child Left Behind law. If it lost the waiv­er, the state would have to send a let­ter to par­ents in any school that did not have 100% of stu­dents meet­ing test score stan­dards. The let­ter would tell par­ents that their child’s school was “fail­ing.” This was seen by the Seat­tle Times and oth­ers as so scary a prospect that, in their mind, leg­is­la­tors had no choice but to give in to Dun­can’s demand.

Leg­is­la­tors cor­rect­ly refused to do so, and Wash­ing­ton became the first state to lose its waiver.

But it is not the first state to oper­ate pub­lic schools with­out such a waiv­er. Five states — Cal­i­for­nia, Mon­tana, Nebras­ka, North Dako­ta, and Ver­mont — nev­er received a waiv­er in the first place. In Cal­i­for­nia, Gov­er­nor Jer­ry Brown and Super­in­ten­dent of Pub­lic Instruc­tion Tom Tor­lak­son sub­mit­ted their own waiv­er appli­ca­tion that pro­posed much more sen­si­ble prac­tices that did­n’t require Cal­i­for­nia schools to teach to the test. Dun­can reject­ed this proposal.

Ver­mont, how­ev­er, refused to even apply for a waiv­er. They insist­ed it was wrong force schools to become test prepa­ra­tion fac­to­ries, as the chair­man of the Ver­mont Board of Edu­ca­tion explained:

Our main inter­est was in being able to assess stu­dents in a more com­plete way and not have the arbi­trary test­ing and all the reper­cus­sions from that, and that’s not what they meant by waiver.

Ver­mon­t’s schools are doing just fine with­out the waiv­er. But under fed­er­al rules, they still have to send the let­ter to par­ents explain­ing that their child’s school is, under the absurd No Child Left Behind rules, “fail­ing.”

Ver­mont could have hung their heads in shame. Instead, they took the require­ment as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to defend holis­tic pub­lic edu­ca­tion and attack Dun­can’s test-obsessed poli­cies. Ver­mon­t’s let­ter was pub­lished this week and it is a remark­able, even inspir­ing doc­u­ment that Wash­ing­ton should imme­di­ate­ly follow.

Here’s how Ver­mont opens their let­ter, imme­di­ate­ly refram­ing the issue and putting Dun­can and his absurd rules on the defensive:

The Ver­mont Agency of Edu­ca­tion does not agree with this fed­er­al pol­i­cy, nor do we agree that all of our schools are low performing.

In 2013, the fed­er­al Edu­ca­tion Depart­ment released a study com­par­ing the per­for­mance of US states to the 47 coun­tries that par­tic­i­pat­ed in the most recent Trends in Inter­na­tion­al Math­e­mat­ics and Sci­ence Study, one of the two large inter­na­tion­al com­par­a­tive assess­ments. Ver­mont ranked 7th in the world in eighth-grade math­e­mat­ics and 4th in sci­ence. Only Mass­a­chu­setts, which has a com­pa­ra­ble child pover­ty rate, did better.

On the Nation­al Assess­ment of Edu­ca­tion­al Progress, Ver­mont con­sis­tent­ly ranks at the high­est lev­els. We have the best grad­u­a­tion rate in the nation and are ranked sec­ond in child well-being.

By open­ing the let­ter this way, Ver­mont demon­strates the absur­di­ty of call­ing their schools fail­ures. They cite a broad range of data, beyond just test scores, to show that the state’s schools are doing well by Ver­mon­t’s children.

But that was just the warmup. The heart of the let­ter, in the three para­graphs quot­ed below, is a resound­ing endorse­ment of pro­gres­sive edu­ca­tion val­ues, and a dev­as­tat­ing crit­i­cism of the focus on stan­dard­ized tests that has been a hall­mark of Dun­can’s tenure at the U.S. Depart­ment of Education:

This pol­i­cy does not serve the inter­est of Ver­mont schools, nor does it advance our eco­nom­ic or social well-being. Fur­ther, it takes our focus away from oth­er mea­sures that give us more mean­ing­ful and use­ful data on school effectiveness.

It is not real­is­tic to expect every sin­gle test­ed child in every school to score as pro­fi­cient. Some of our stu­dents are very capa­ble, but may have unique learn­ing needs that make it dif­fi­cult for them to accu­rate­ly demon­strate their strengths on a stan­dard­ized test. Some of our chil­dren sur­vived trau­mat­ic events that pre­clude good per­for­mance on the test when it is admin­is­tered. Some of our stu­dents recent­ly arrived from oth­er coun­tries, and have many valu­able tal­ents but may not yet have a good grasp of the aca­d­e­m­ic Eng­lish used on our assess­ments. And, some of our stu­dents are just kids who for what­ev­er rea­son are not inter­est­ed in demon­strat­ing their best work on a stan­dard­ized test on a giv­en day.

We know that statewide, our biggest chal­lenge is find­ing bet­ter ways to engage and sup­port the learn­ing of chil­dren liv­ing in pover­ty. Our stu­dents from fam­i­lies with means and par­ents with more edu­ca­tion, con­sis­tent­ly are among the top per­form­ing in the coun­try. How­ev­er, fed­er­al NCLB pol­i­cy has not helped our schools improve learn­ing or nar­row the gaps we see in our data between chil­dren liv­ing in pover­ty and chil­dren from more afflu­ent fam­i­lies. We need a dif­fer­ent approach that actu­al­ly works.

The let­ter goes on to lay out a series of ques­tions that par­ents should ask to deter­mine whether their school is a “suc­cess” or a “fail­ure.” Rather than sole­ly focus­ing on test scores, the ques­tions instead focus on more sen­si­ble and use­ful issues, such as whether stu­dents are grow­ing intel­lec­tu­al­ly, gain­ing pro­fi­cien­cy and new skills, and whether they enjoy going to school.

Ver­mont is chart­ing a bet­ter, more sen­si­ble course in improv­ing our pub­lic schools. The Wash­ing­ton State Super­in­ten­dent of Pub­lic Instruc­tion Randy Dorn has a chance to fol­low suit and use the man­dat­ed let­ters to par­ents to explain why the leg­is­la­ture was right to reject Dun­can’s demands. More impor­tant­ly, he can use the oppor­tu­ni­ty to lay out a more holis­tic, sen­si­ble, and effec­tive vision for our schools that go well beyond test scores and punishments.

It’s time for Wash­ing­ton State to step up and lead the way out of the test­ing morass and toward great schools for all our children.

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One Comment

  1. I hope that not only Wash­ing­ton , but every state in the coun­try will wake up and see that their schools are not fail­ing at all. The fail­ure is with a fed­er­al gov­ern­ment that has lis­tened to edu­ca­tion “deform­ers” instead of edu­ca­tors who know what is going on in our schools. I hope Ver­mont stands firm and leads the charge to help all our chil­dren expe­ri­ence school success.

    # by Abby Vaile :: August 7th, 2014 at 11:38 PM

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  1. […] to this extreme­ly nar­row and mis­lead­ing met­ric. But the 28 school dis­tricts have decid­ed to fol­low Vermont’s lead and send their own let­ter along with the fed­er­al­ly man­dat­ed let­ter, explain­ing that these schools […]

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