Feds say state’s schools failing, bring back NCLB requirements

Parents in the Tukwila School District are receiving letters mandated by the federal government that their local schools are failing, a claim that Tukwila's school superintendent and other school leaders across the state reject.

Parents in the Tukwila School District are receiving letters mandated by the federal government that their local schools are failing, a claim that Tukwila’s school superintendent and other school leaders across the state reject.

The letters are required because the federal government in April revoked Washington state’s waiver from the mandates of No Child Left Behind that all students meet achievement standards in reading and math by the end of last school year.

“Our schools are not failures,” said Tukwila Schools Superintendent Nancy Coogan at a press conference Aug. 13 in Kent at which 28 superintendents in the Puget Sound region called the “failing-school” label regressive and punitive.

Coogan and other superintendents pointed to the success stories in their districts.

Coogan said using the state’s student-growth measure, Foster High school was in the top 1 percent of state schools for student growth in math. For context, she said that 32 percent of Foster’s student body are English Language Learners and 73 percent live in poverty.

But in this example not every Foster student is meeting the federal math standard, so, without the NCLB waiver, Foster is not making Adequate Yearly Progress in math and is subject to the sanctions of the federal act.

An initial sanction is a letter to parents in the district that the district is not meeting federal standards. Next steps include support for schools and finally step 5, a potential restructuring of the school.

An immediate impact of the federal decision is financial.

Like other school districts, Tukwila’s must divert 20 percent of its federal dollars away from Title 1 programs that help low-performing students to supplemental services such as tutors and to bus students to schools that meet AYP. That amounts to about $360,000.

“In general it means that we have had to make further hard choices about how we support kids when there is never enough support,” said district spokeswoman Sara Niegowski. “For instance, the money could have funded an instructional coach at each building or more targeted intervention sessions for more students.”

Washington state doesn’t consider the cultural and economic disparities among school districts in deciding how to spend its education dollars, Coogan said. Because of that, Tukwila schools rely on “every penny of federal Title 1 funds,” she said.

“In other words, our most at-risk students suffer when we are forced to repurpose dollars for ineffective set-asides, which we are now forced to do because of AYP,” said Coogan.

Coogan used Cascade View Elementary School as another example of how students can outperform counterparts statewide but still fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress, meaning all students meet the federal standard.

With 90 percent of its students living in poverty, Cascade Elementary had among the biggest increases in the state in third-grade reading (19 percent) and math (13 percent). Cascade View’s ELL students outperformed the average in math for their ELL counterparts in the state by more than 30 percent and outperformed the average for all students.

Tukwila’s students make “tremendous growth,” Coogan said.

“But they come to us with such a unique set of challenges that it’s virtually impossible to march them along in a uniform bar of 100-percent achievement each year, as AYP demands,” she said.

Washington State has operated under a conditional waiver from the accountability requirements of NCLB for two school years. Without the waiver, starting this spring school districts will be required to once again report Adequate Yearly Progress.

The NCLB’s goal is that 100 percent of students would become proficient in ready and math by year’s end, a goal that nearly every Washington school will fail to reach, according to education officials.

Arne Duncan, the federal Secretary of Education, in a letter in April to Washington’s state superintendent Randy Dorn, gave the reasons why he would revoke the waiver after the 2013-14 school year.

The state Legislature had failed to implement education reforms required by the federal government. One of the reforms the legislature hasn’t adopted is to tie teacher and principal evaluations to student test scores.

“I appreciate that transitioning back to NCLB is not desirable and will not be simple,” Duncan wrote.

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