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Without NCLB Waiver, Most Wash. Schools Now Failing Despite Steady Test Scores

David Goldman
AP Photo

The impact of Washington's loss of a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act came into sharper focus Wednesday as nearly nine in 10 of the state's schools officially received failing labels despite little change in students' performance on statewide standardized tests.

Just 260 of the state's nearly 2,200 schools met their required yearly progress goals under the outdated federal law, state officials said as they denounced the impractical standard they say Washington schools must now meet.

"We've had to do some things that are ridiculous, stupid, ineffective waste resources and accomplish zero," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, "and that is if you have a school that has one student that doesn't meet grade level proficiency, then that school fails."

Dorn's comments came during the annual release of statewide test scores, which largely held steady from last year. (Take a look at charts showing both reading and math results below.)

In any given elementary or middle school grade, seven in 10 students generally passed their reading exam statewide, and about six in 10 passed their math tests.

Achievement gaps between white and minority students, however, also remained steady. In some cases, black, Hispanic and Pacific-Islander students passed exams at rates 20 percentage points lower than white students.

Additionally, the numbers showed nine in 10 members of the class of 2014 passed every testing requirement needed for graduation — a number that is not the same as a graduation rate.

'It Doesn't Make Sense Anymore'

With most states falling well short of NCLB's expectation that 100 percent of students pass state exams by this year, Washington became one of more than 40 states to receive waivers from the law in 2012.

Last April, the feds yanked that waiver after the state Legislature declined to amend Washington's teacher evaluation system to require the use of statewide test results. Dorn advocated for the change, but officials in the state's largest teachers union prevailed on lawmakers to hold their ground.

"Congress knows [the No Child Left Behind Act] doesn't make sense anymore, the president knows it doesn't make any sense, our Legislature knows it doesn't make sense," Dorn said Wednesday. "But the adults can't get together and solve the issue."

In 2011, the last year Washington schools received NCLB ratings before the state's waiver came, more than 1,300 of 2,200 schools — roughly six out of every 10 — failed to meet their mandated annual progress goals. This year, more than 1,900 schools fell short.

What Happens Now That NCLB Is Back?

Washington's loss of the waiver cost school districts their flexibility to spend a portion of federal funds as they saw fit. Instead, NCLB requires schools use that funding, which totals more than $40 million in school districts statewide, to pay for tutoring or students' transfers to other schools. Districts must also send letters statewide to inform parents of their rights to these services.

But it also appears some of the tougher sanctions NCLB includes, such as closures or state takeovers of failing schools, are off the table. Though more than 400 schools haven't met their progress goals for five years straight and could conceivably face these drastic penalties, Dorn said the state doesn't have the wherewithal to take over a school.

"I would doubt that these 400 or so schools would face much pressure to implement any serious kind of restructuring — and would experience few consequences if they stayed the course with their current practices and structure," said Anne Hyslop, a senior policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy and advisory group.

Though more than 660 Washington schools haven't met their NCLB goals for four years or more, the state has identified 280 struggling "focus and priority" schools that will receive targeted aid and coaching from state officials. State officials say those schools are the most they can handle without spreading their help too thin.

Out With The Old

Washington's return to the original NCLB rules comes as the state plans to move away from its current regime of standardized tests, known as the Measurements of Student Progress. The move is likely to shake up the mostly-unchanged scores state officials released Wednesday.

Next school year is the first in which students will take Smarter Balanced Assessments, which are tailored to match the new Common Core academic standards.

Though education policy leaders are careful to say lining up old test results with Smarter Balanced Assessments scores is like comparing apples and oranges, they say parents should expect passing rates to drop after the new tests begin.

"The scores will be lower than what parents are used to seeing on the [old exams], but the level of what students know is completely different as well," said Chris Barron, spokesman for a nonprofit education foundation called the Partnership for Learning.

"The current state exams, you could say," Barron added, "are somewhat on basic skills knowledge — is the student at grade level? But the Smarter Balanced exams are at a college- and career-ready level — is the student on a path to college and career readiness?"

Every student from third to eighth grade will begin taking Smarter Balanced Assessments next year. High school students will have the option to take other exams to meet graduation requirements until 2019, when the Smarter Balanced tests in math and English language arts become mandatory.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.