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.