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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2 replies on “Vermont’s heroic response shows the way on No Child Left Behind letters”

  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.

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