NPI's Cascadia Advocate

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

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

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.

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One Comment

  1. 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.

    # by David Sudmeier :: February 19th, 2014 at 6:31 PM

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  1. […] « Wash­ing­ton State Sen­ate revolts against teach­ing to the test in key vote Thurs­day, Feb­ru­ary 20th, 2014 […]

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