Strengthen state law on teacher evaluations

The News TribuneAugust 19, 2013 

Washington state should take the warning from the U.S. Department of Education seriously: Get the state’s teacher evaluation system in line with federal standards or face some fairly dire consequences.

Federal guidelines require that states measure how much teachers contribute to students’ academic improvement – which means taking into account students’ performance on standardized tests when that information is available.

The problem, as the DOE sees it, is that Washington doesn’t mandate test results to be used in measuring student growth. State law only says that school districts can use those tests for that purpose.

Let’s hope that this is just a problem with semantics, one that could be easily resolved in the next session of the Legislature by making it clear that use of tests is required, not discretionary. Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn says he will propose legislation to do just that.

Failure to make the change would mean the state faces rejection of its request to extend its conditional waiver from provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

If Washington doesn’t get the waiver extension, it would not be exempt from the act’s tough consequences that kick in when 100 percent of students fail to meet state standards on math and reading by 2014. Among them: being forced to use some of their federal funding to hire tutors for students at schools that fail to meet standards.

Forty other states and the District of Columbia have received conditional waivers – which should be interpreted as DOE acknowledgment that getting 100 percent of students to proficiency is an unreasonable standard. But the trade-off for the waiver is that states must show that their schools not only are making continual progress in proficiency rates and closing achievement gaps, but that they are also adopting more rigorous teacher evaluation systems – ones including student performance on standardized tests.

That has been a sticking point with teachers unions in some states, including Washington. Many lawmakers have tried to walk a fine line on the issue, advocating for better schools but being reluctant to hold educators more accountable when schools fail.

For all its shortfalls, No Child Left Behind does force states to focus on the problem of failing schools and provides incentives to show that they’re making progress. Washington has fallen short on how it evaluates teachers, and that fact hasn’t been lost on the federal overseers.

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