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.

Adjacent posts

3 replies on “Washington State Senate revolts against teaching to the test in key vote”

  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.

Comments are closed.