In the wake of the Wash­ing­ton State Sen­ate’s remark­able, bipar­ti­san revolt against stan­dard­ized test­ing man­dates, the issue has rock­et­ed to the top of the state’s polit­i­cal agen­da. It was a promi­nent issue across the state yes­ter­day at the var­i­ous leg­isla­tive town halls.

Edu­ca­tion reform groups are mobi­liz­ing to reverse the Sen­ate’s deci­sion, voic­ing con­cern that as much as $38 mil­lion in fed­er­al grants may be lost unless Wash­ing­ton teacher eval­u­a­tions are linked to stu­dent test scores — even if par­ents do not want such a link to be made. And today Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee, in Wash­ing­ton D.C. for the Nation­al Gov­er­nors Asso­ci­a­tion meet­ing, will sit down with Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Arne Dun­can to dis­cuss the issue.

Dun­can is not going to sim­ply back down with­out being forced to do so. But by tak­ing away Dun­can’s lever­age and call­ing his bluff, Wash­ing­ton State polit­i­cal lead­ers can pro­tect our kids from being overtested.

It’s worth think­ing about how bluff­ing works. The entire point is for the bluffer to turn a weak posi­tion into a win­ning one by mak­ing the oth­er side quit because they are afraid of what the bluffer might do — whether it’s lay­ing down a straight flush and tak­ing the pot, or yank­ing mil­lions in fed­er­al edu­ca­tion funds. A bluff works when the oth­er side believes you, doesn’t want to take the risk, and folds. Bluff­ing fails when the oth­er side doesn’t believe you and refus­es to be intim­i­dat­ed. Espe­cial­ly when they know they, not the bluffer, have the win­ning hand.

Edu­ca­tion reform­ers like Dun­can have con­sis­tent­ly failed to get Wash­ing­ton State to direct­ly link teacher eval­u­a­tions to test scores. Par­ents, teach­ers, and stu­dents have resist­ed such a link because they know it will erode the qual­i­ty of class­room instruc­tion by “teach­ing to the test.” These atti­tudes are bipar­ti­san and cross the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum. Pub­lic anger at stan­dard­ized test­ing is pro­duc­ing a nation­wide back­lash as par­ents demand schools focus on instruc­tion and not on testing.

Sev­er­al years ago Wash­ing­ton leg­is­la­tors arrived at a sen­si­ble com­pro­mise, requir­ing dis­tricts to include mea­sures of stu­dent growth in their eval­u­a­tions of teach­ers — but leav­ing it to the dis­tricts to decide what that actu­al­ly meant. It’s a good sys­tem that should be giv­en time to be prop­er­ly imple­ment­ed. But Dun­can insists that teacher eval­u­a­tions be direct­ly linked to spe­cif­ic test scores, even where states have cho­sen not to do so.

Edu­ca­tion reform­ers and their Repub­li­can allies are try­ing to make this issue not about teacher eval­u­a­tions and stan­dard­ized tests — they know they’ll lose on that ground. So instead they have reframed the debate as whether Wash­ing­ton will lose out on as much as $38 mil­lion in fed­er­al funding.

That’s no small amount of mon­ey — except in com­par­i­son to the bil­lion-dol­lar tab of com­ply­ing with the Supreme Court’s McCleary deci­sion. The Leg­is­la­ture is already under strict court order to come up with $1 bil­lion to ade­quate­ly fund K‑12 edu­ca­tion. The Leg­is­la­ture should sim­ply tell the U.S. Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion it has no prob­lem adding anoth­er $38 mil­lion to that bill. It’s easy, afford­able, and worth every pen­ny giv­en the restora­tion of local con­trol over edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy that comes with it.

Such a step only becomes nec­es­sary if Dun­can car­ries out his threat. If Gov­er­nor Inslee and the Leg­is­la­ture tell Dun­can that Wash­ing­ton will sim­ply back­fill any lost fed­er­al fund­ing, stand­ing firm in the face of fed­er­al demands, Dun­can will have to fold. Espe­cial­ly since his remain­ing cards are very weak.

The oth­er threat the U.S. Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion has made is that it will revoke the state’s waiv­er from the odi­ous No Child Left Behind law. This is their most obvi­ous bluff. With­out the waiv­er, schools not meet­ing the require­ment that 100% of stu­dents be meet­ing test score stan­dards will have to send let­ters home to par­ents explain­ing that their kid attends a “fail­ing school.”

The Oba­ma Admin­is­tra­tion has no desire to see this actu­al­ly hap­pen. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has already pledged to fix No Child Left Behind. He also has spo­ken out repeat­ed­ly against stan­dard­ized tests:

Don’t label a school as fail­ing one day and then throw your hands up and walk away from it the next.

And don’t tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend too much of the year prepar­ing him to fill in a few bub­bles on a stan­dard­ized test.

Pres­i­dent Oba­ma knows that it would be bad pol­i­tics for those let­ters to get sent home, and so he’s been look­ing for a way out. The waivers are not just lever­age to get states to adopt poli­cies they have oth­er­wise refused. They’re also an essen­tial escape from a seri­ous polit­i­cal prob­lem for the president.

After all, Cal­i­for­nia has shown this strat­e­gy is suc­cess­ful. Gov­er­nor Jer­ry Brown and the Cal­i­for­nia leg­is­la­ture faced a sim­i­lar threat from Dun­can, who vowed to revoke the NCLB waiv­er and take back mil­lions in fed­er­al fund­ing from Cal­i­for­nia schools if the state went ahead with a one-year delay in admin­is­ter­ing a cer­tain stan­dard­ized test. Cal­i­for­nia reject­ed the demand and so far, Dun­can has not fol­lowed through on his threat.

The lessons are clear. Rather than approach­ing Dun­can as a sup­pli­cant, Gov­er­nor Inslee and the state leg­is­la­ture should be call­ing his bluff. They should pledge to back­fill any fed­er­al grants that are tak­en away if Wash­ing­ton insists on pro­tect­ing stu­dents from class­rooms that teach to the test. They should stand with col­leagues in oth­er states that are also push­ing back on flawed fed­er­al edu­ca­tion man­dates. Instead, they should col­lab­o­rate togeth­er on sen­si­ble poli­cies that will ensure our stu­dents get a good, com­pre­hen­sive, holis­tic edu­ca­tion that pre­pares them for life, rather than for bub­ble tests.

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