Schools labeled as failing, but are they?

Who’s going to flinch first? The state of Washington and the U.S. Department of Education are playing a game of chicken that puts Washington state students in the middle.

Who’s going to flinch first? The state of Washington and the U.S. Department of Education are playing a game of chicken that puts Washington state students in the middle.

A lack of action on Capitol Hill in DC related to updating the Education and Secondary Education Act — its most current iteration is known by the name “No Child Left Behind” — has trickled down to Washington’s school districts, which were required to mail home letters that labeled schools as failing.

The label came from the US Department of Education, which revoked Washington state’s waiver from requirements in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) earlier this year, making Washington the first state in the country to lose its waiver.

One of the requirements in No Child Left Behind is that schools meet Annual Yearly Progress, or AYP, benchmarks. Among those benchmarks is by 2014 every student pass their state’s standardized tests in reading and math. The ESEA has historically been updated regularly, but has been overdue for a revision for a number of years. That update would replace No Child Left Behind. As the date for refreshed legislation came and went with no action in Congress and the 2014 deadline for meeting AYP approached, the Department of Education granted states waivers on a yearly basis. For the past two years Washington had received such waivers.

This year, however, the state’s waiver was denied because of a Department of Education requirement that students performance on standardized tests be a component in teacher evaluations. In Washington, including that component in evaluations would require a change in state law by the legislature.

No change equaled no waiver.

Besides mailing home the letters, there are also federally imposed financial ramifications for districts.

Schools that receive Title 1 funds — e.g. schools that meet a threshold in the number of students who receive free and reduced lunch and receive federal funds for programs that help economically disadvantaged students in the classroom through additional programming — and are labeled as failing must set aside 20 percent of the Title 1 funds for either private tutors or to transport students to other schools. Additionally, after two years of not meeting AYP, schools enter a series of remedial steps as outlined in NCLB, which can conclude in the reorganization of a school.


Last week the superintendents of 28 school districts in the Puget Sound Educational Service District, which provides additional resources and support for school districts and includes Sumner, White River and Enumclaw school districts, signed a letter that took a stance against the “failing” label, calling it “repressive” and “punitive.”

In addition, PSESD held a press conference last week with four of the superintendents to discuss the impact of schools being labeled as failing.

“It’s clear, the evidence is overwhelming that schools are not failing,” Kent School District Superintendent Edward Lee Vargas said at the press conference. “We want to be held accountable and now it’s time to hold accountability accountable.”

Vargas went on to call the law antiquated and said that it was in direct conflict with other laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“We do reject the narrative that our schools are failing,” Vargas said. “That’s contrary to the facts.”


“In spite of the squabbling between the federal government and the state legislators, and the confusing requirement requiring virtually every school in Washington to be identified as ‘failing,’ Sumner School District continues to do an outstanding job at educating the children of our district,” Sumner Superintendent Sara Johnson said.

Johnson said that Sumner schools are continuing to improve, and that students scored higher than the previous year.

“Because of conflict at the state and federal levels, we are forced to send out letters informing parents that the schools are ranked failing under the antiquated NCLB act,” Johnson said.


The Enumclaw School District send an original letter home to parents and, in addition, attached the letter signed by the 28 superintendents.

“Please keep in mind the only reason you are receiving this letter this year is because Washington State lost its waiver from NCLB requirements,” wrote Superintendent Mike Nelson. “The Enumclaw School District continues to make excellent progress and our teachers and students work hard every day in the classroom to get results for every child.”

Nelson’s two-page letter, dated Aug. 18, explains what steps the district is taking and, further, suggests steps parents might take to help their schools and district improve.


One of the ironies of the battle between the state and the Department of Education, and the failing schools label, is that many of the schools now deemed failing have won many awards for excellence in a variety of categories.

The idea behind the law, is if students aren’t getting the help they need at school, then give them other options. The law doesn’t take into consideration variables such as English as a second language, or students with special needs. That, school officials say, means the law misses the point, and isn’t effective.


As for students performance on state tests being a part of teacher evaluations, Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association said that the organization supported the state’s move to not change the law.

“There’s no research that indicates linking student test scores to teacher evaluations does anything to help students or their teachers,” Wood said.

He then pointed to the state’s new teacher evaluation system, the Teacher and Principal Education Project, that was piloted last year and continues to be rolled out this year.

“Teachers and school administrators across Washington state are working very hard to implement the new evaluation system in a way that helps students but also teachers as well,” Wood said. “There’s a lot of great work that is being done.”


State Rep. Pat Sullivan, a Democrat from the 47th district and majority leader called NCLB “flawed.”

“We have an accountability system here in the state of Washington that is incredibly well done…That should be the measure that we use,” Sullivan said in defense of the state’s systems.

He added that the state tests for students — which are currently moving to the Smarter Balanced assessments that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards — are cumulative and wouldn’t be an effective measure of teachers.

“It measures if students get past a certain level, it doesn’t measure student growth,” Sullivan said of the tests. “There was a lot of concern that we would be tying teacher evaluations to something that didn’t serve that purpose.”

A sentiment that Sullivan said he shares. “I don’t believe that that assessment is a good tool for what the federal government wants us to use it for.”

“My hope is that Congress will get serious and actually take this issue on,” Sullivan said. “That the NCLB accountability will be changed to a system that makes sense.”

The Department of Education and the White House did not return calls for comment for this article.


Going forward there are three main options that could come to fruition. In no particular order: the state Legislature could opt to change state law and make student performance on standardized tests – that is, on the Smarter Balanced tests — a part of teacher evaluations, which would most likely result in restoration of the state’s waiver. Or, the Department of Education could decide to relent and extend a waiver to the state despite not including test data in teacher evaluations. The third option is that Congress enacts an update to ESEA, thereby replacing the requirements for every student to pass state tests — once again, the Smarter Balanced tests — in No Child Left Behind with new standards.

Until circumstances change, and despite the negativity, school officials say they will keep educating kids; after all, they say, their schools, teachers, and their students are anything but failures.

“The No Child Left Behind Act is outdated and is not a guide for improving schools in the US. There is so much research that points the clear direction the US needs to go – yet the government make no progress because of the conflicts among themselves.”

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