by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times –
How are Washington’s schools performing? According to promises that the state made to the federal government in exchange for funding, not as well as they should be. The Washington State Annual Measurable Objectives report shows a majority of students failing to meet the benchmarks laid out at the beginning of 2012, with all but a select group falling below state standards for math and reading.
To understand exactly what this means, a bit of legislative history is necessary. Some pieces of federal legislation are part of the household vernacular. Americans speak freely of the Volstead Act, which briefly amended the U.S. Constitution to prohibit alcohol, or the Civil Rights Act that laid the groundwork for protections of marginalized people throughout American society. But one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation in the nation’s history isn’t so familiar. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), first signed into law in 1965, has been at the heart of national school funding since the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson.
The original ESEA was a significant reform that, among other things, prohibited the creation of a national curriculum, and provided federal funding for additional programs that would bolster the effectiveness of schools that struggled with low resources and served marginalized populations. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, the ESEA provided no funding for regular school operations, but that changed in response to a spike in poor performance by many under-funded schools during the administration of Ronald Reagan. From that point to the modern day, ESEA funding has supported day-to-day operations in many schools.
The ESEA is renewed occasionally, and the 2002 version of it is known by the program name “No Child Left Behind,” established during the George W. Bush Administration, emphasizing standardized tests as measures of student and teacher aptitude. In recent years, individual states have had the option to waive the standards of the ESEA in favor of their own, federally-approved standards. Washington, along with 42 other states, took that waiver, establishing the Annual Measurable Objectives standards, which many students now struggle to meet.
Taken as a whole, today, Washington students are falling behind math and reading standards by approximately two percent. That’s a spike from last year’s tally, which just barely failed to meet benchmarks. The state measures performance by ethnicity, and the only group to meet or exceed the state standards in the 2012/2013 year were students of Asian descent. The average gap does not exceed seven percent below the benchmarks, with students who are learning English as a second language showing the greatest lag.
While falling below the standards by an average of 5 percent may not seem like a problem, this recent report is troubling for two reasons. First, the AMO standards have an overall, five-year target that assumes meeting or exceeding benchmarks in each year. Every year that students under-perform, reaching the target seems less likely. Second, the dip in performance between the last two school years lays the groundwork for a downward trend that calls into question Washington’s approach to public education.
Target improvements for each group of students, including ethnic makeup, English acquisition and special needs, end in 2017. While there are no penalties between now and then for schools that fail to meet the target, there may be penalties soon or after analysis in 2017.
In the period that Washington has been granted its ESEA waiver, the state has also been busy adopting new education standards beyond existing federal or state expectations. The most significant shift has been its adoption of the Common Core State Standards, a new set of curricula that is strongly endorsed by teachers and legislators in many states. This curriculum mixes modern project-based learning models with elements of classical education, such as reading works from a variety of influential writers, and focuses on reading, writing and math. A parallel but independently-developed set of standards for science, known as the Next Generation Science Standards, are considered companion curricula for the Common Core State Standards, and will likely be a part of Washington’s education landscape soon.
Funding to implement these or any new standards may be in jeopardy. Washington, along with Oregon and Kansas, is now considered “high risk” by federal regulators in regard to its ESEA waiver status. Federal funds for schools through the Title I program have never been revoked, but the federal government has the option to once again impose No Child Left Behind standards on states that fail to meet their benchmarks.