Washington Watch

The Classroom Teacher, spring 2014

The U.S. Department of Education recently released data studies that revealed indicators of persistent and widespread disparities in educational equity among disadvantaged students, from prekindergarten through high school. The compiled data was self-reported from all of the nation’s 97,000 public schools and its 16,500 school districts.

As educational equity is a key initiative of the Obama administration, it’s likely that the Department will soon provide guidance for each state to follow to protect disadvantaged students from being assigned “ineffective and unqualified teachers at higher rates than their peers.”

This guidance will most likely be handed down through a combination of federal regulations from the Office of Civil Rights and ongoing No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver modifications. (Texas received its NCLB waiver in fall 2013.)

NCLB, passed in 2001, required states to ensure that poor and minority students were not taught by unqualified teachers at higher rates than their peers. The “highly qualified” determination thus far has been based on teacher certifications and educational achievement. However, the Obama administration wants states to assess teacher qualifications as derived from student growth and evaluation systems being implemented now across the nation — shifting away from past markers such as years of experience, certification and education levels.

If states remain committed to implementing these new teacher evaluation systems, the Department appears to be agreeable to extending their existing NCLB waivers. Not all states want to make that commitment, however.

Washington state legislators just voted down a bill that would require statewide tests (based on Common Core State Standards) to be used as part of teacher and principal evaluations. Washington state school systems use local tests to measure student growth when evaluating teachers and principals — a standard the federal government deemed unacceptable.

The issue in Washington state seems to be one of timing, in that the statewide tests are being rolled out this spring, and teachers are opposed to being evaluated in the first year when the evaluation system has not yet proven it provides valid and reliable measurements.

Given that the authority to hire and place teachers lies with local school districts, the distribution of teachers between schools and districts may be difficult for states to influence without legal constraints.

[Note: On April 24, 2014, after this issue of The Classroom Teacher went to press, Washington became the first state in the US to lose its NCLB waiver when it was revoked by the Department of Education. See this Seattle Times article for more information.]

Status of modified special education tests

In 2013, the Department of Education proposed regulations phasing out the 2 percent alternate assessment based on modified achievement standards (AA-MAS). During the comment period on those regulations, TCTA submitted comments to the Department that stated the association’s opposition to the proposed change. These comments, based on a survey of TCTA members, were also distributed to the entire Texas Congressional delegation.

Including the comments from TCTA, the Department received more than 400 responses to its proposed regulations — much more than expected, with respondents in Virginia and Texas being the most vocal and delivering well-constructed and thoughtful commentary. The Department even noted that the state of Texas delivered a large number of grassroots responses.

A final rule is expected to come from the Department of Education in late May 2014 that will reflect the proposed rule, impacting the 16 states that use modified assessments. As a result of this impending change, the STAAR-Modified will be administered for the last time in spring 2014.

According to the Texas Education Agency, state assessment options available to Texas students receiving special education services in 2015 include STAAR, STAAR Spanish, STAAR L and STAAR Alternate. Accommodations will be allowed but have not yet been finalized for 2014-15.

The Department held a meeting in conjunction with the National Council of Education Outcomes in Atlanta in mid-February to prepare state representatives with materials for a successful transition away from the 2 percent modified assessment.

This Washington Watch was provided by TCTA’s Washington, D.C. lobby firm, Van Scoyoc Associates, a full-service federal government affairs firm and the foremost independent lobbying company in the nation’s capital.