Washington State Achievement Index: Recognition and Improvement

Each year, the State Board of Education and Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction analyze school performance through the Washington State Achievement Index. In addition to the federal Annual Yearly Progress measure, it’s the only statewide school accountability system recognized by both the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and State Board of Education.

The Achievement Index measures student proficiency in math, reading, writing and science, student growth, and college and career readiness (through high school graduation rates). It identifies high-performing schools for recognition and low-performing schools for support. The Index emphasizes improvement and recognition, not punishment.

What doesn’t it do? It doesn’t assign letter grades to schools.

The State Board of Education does not issue letter grades to schools, ever. Such an approach oversimplifies school data, and it doesn’t do justice to school communities working hard to serve students in a number of areas.

If you’d like a complete picture of how a school performed in 2013-2014, check out the Washington State Achievement Index.

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Anatomy of the Biology End-of-Course Requirement

The 2015 legislative session will be noteworthy in history for a number of reasons. Significant investments in K-12 education (and possibly a looming Supreme Court response). A transportation package. Tuition cuts at our state’s public universities.

Another reason it might be noteworthy is the shift it foreshadows in science assessment and high school graduation requirements in our state.

After nearly six months of debate, the legislature finally settled on a one word change in the statute in SB 6145. The effect is to delay the use of the Biology End of Course (EOC) as a high school graduation requirement for the classes of 2015 (retroactively) and the class of 2016. The Class of 2017 and beyond, however, still must meet the requirement.

The State Board of Education has been asking the legislature to reevaluate using biology as a science assessment since October. So we think the legislature did the right thing… but only sort of.  The Board would prefer the state end the use of Biology EOC as a graduation requirement permanently.

A temporary suspension of biology suggests that the main problem is that not enough kids pass the Biology EOC. The assumption seems to be that if we give them more time (in this case, 2 more years) they ultimately will. This thinking is evident in the intent section of the bill, as well as the budget note language included for the modest investments that were made for math and science professional development.

The pass rates for Biology EOC are indeed a problem, but they are not the main problem. The main problem is that the biology exam is the wrong test to require for high school graduation.

We should be intentional about what we assess, and why. And we shouldn’t require a test for graduation simply because it’s what we have at the time, and we don’t have a better one to replace it. Rather, our focus should be on the positive ways in which assessments can reinforce accountability for standards in those content and skill areas the state highly values for its graduates. The goal, always, is to make all students career and college-ready.

The problem is that the time and resources being deployed in our system toward the biology EOC assessment is considerably out-of-sync with the relative importance of that test for what it means to be college and career ready in science. The state’s recently adopted next generation science standards (NGSS) are our road map for what we want students to know and be able to do. Biology is important, but ultimately just one part of those comprehensive standards. Is retaking the biology EOC three times an important part of a student’s journey to college and career readiness? Probably not.

Meanwhile, as a system we await the development of a new assessment that is aligned to the NGSS standards. Such an assessment is under construction and might be available preliminarily in the 2017-18 school year. Thinking ahead, the legislature may not want phase in a new science assessment for students mid-way through their high school career. If they stick with that practice – and they probably should – then the assessment could conceivably replace the Biology EOC as a graduation requirement for students in 8th grade that first year, 2017-18. They would be the class of 2022. So, absent additional legislative action, we are still potentially looking at six or more graduating classes for which the Biology EOC requirement remains.

Ultimately, tests should be few. And they should be chosen carefully. Those tests that are required should directly reinforce the breadth of our state content standards. Our newly implemented Math and English language arts assessments are fine examples of that. The Biology EOC is not.

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Smarter Balanced Assessments and Graduation Requirements

A lot is happening with the Smarter Balanced Assessment in Washington right now. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction released preliminary results from 2015 testing last week, and the State Board of Education meets August 5 in Olympia to set a graduation score. At the July meeting in Seattle, the Board will hear a panel on implementation. In the meantime, administrators, educators, students, and families have questions. The one we hear most: “Why set the score after students take the test?” We’ll answer that question in this blog post.

First, some background. The state adopted new learning standards (Common Core State Standards) for math and English Language Arts in 2011. In 2013, the Legislature directed the Board to set a score students need to attain on the new assessments to earn a high school diploma with the new standards. Board members recognized the need to develop a score that won’t force students to carry the weight of new assessments. OSPI and the Board worked together to identify a process that’s fair to students.

The Board adopted Smarter Balanced levels three and four as meeting proficiency in January, but those scores wouldn’t work as a graduation standard for Washington students – students who hadn’t had the benefit of being taught to the standards throughout their middle and high school years, or the  benefit of earlier scoring to chart their paths. Many juniors took the Smarter Balanced Assessment this year. For those students, it’s not a graduation requirement, but it can serve as an alternative and be used for placement in college courses.

The Board wants a score that will result in an equivalent percentage of students meeting the graduation standard as past years and approved a process to do that – developed by OSPI – at the March meeting. OSPI proposed to collect results from students who took the HSPE and EOC assessments as sophomores in 2014 and the Smarter Balanced Assessments as juniors in 2015. The graduation scores will be based on comparing performance on both tests.

Another confusing part of testing this year: parental refusals, or “opt-outs.” What it means is that some students aren’t taking the state-required tests. OSPI is evaluating parental refusal numbers now. Board members hope to have a representative sample to establish a fair score for graduation as planned.

Because the Board is required under current law to set a score for meeting standard, the Board will meet on August 5 to decide a score that means meeting standard for graduation. The process above will set standards in a way that’s most fair to students and schools – a way that doesn’t penalize students for taking the new tests, but still provides a way to identify gaps in Washington’s education system.

If you have questions about the process of setting graduation scores for the Smarter Balanced Assessment, please post them in the comments below.

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2015 Budget Statement

Statement from Isabel Muñoz-Colón, Chair of the State Board of Education, on yesterday’s proposed budget legislation (2PsSHB 1106), reflecting the house’s most recent position in negotiations with the Senate.

The State Board of Education remains concerned that neither the Senate or House budget proposals constitute “ample provision” as the Supreme Court will define that term in its deliberations in the McCleary court case. Though the additional investments in schools are greatly appreciated, the Board believes that merely fulfilling the current law commitments of House Bill 2776 (2010) is not likely to put us on track for full constitutional compliance by 2018.

This limited approach ignores the need for an immediate first step on strengthening the state salary guide for educators, which is clearly inconsistent with the actual costs borne by districts to attract and retain teachers. A thoughtful phase-in plan to bolster salaries and to ensure that local levies are not used to pay for basic education programs will require several years to implement. Reaching completion by 2018 requires the first steps to be taken now.

It has been 6 years since the passage of HB 2261, redefining the program of basic education, and several workgroups have weighed in on the important issues. The Board urges initial policy action this session, as opposed to further study on issues that have already been thoroughly studied by the Basic Education Task Force, the Joint Task Force on Education Funding, Washington Learns, and the Quality Education Council, among others.

When comparing the budget proposals from the two chambers, the Board has favored the House approach up until this point, precisely because it has sought to make robust investments in public education beyond current law requirements, reflecting the recommendations of the Joint Task Force on Basic Education Funding. These investments have included funding for transitional bilingual education, additional guidance counselors, and additional parent engagement coordinators, to name a few. Now that the House has apparently ceded on these items, and appears poised to propose a “study bill” to analyze compensation policy once again, we believe it is in danger of losing its stature as the stronger chamber on McCleary. The tax loophole proposals in support of education contained in HB 2269 are appreciated and supported, but even if it does pass, it still represents a considerable retreat from the originally proposed investments in public schools.

For this reason, the Board urges the House and Senate not to advance the budget proposal contained in HB 1106, and rather to advance a comprehensive McCleary bill that makes investments in student guidance and supports, and presents a clear path to full constitutional compliance by 2018.

The Board appreciates the hard work being undertaken by our legislative leaders, and does not discount the importance of the looming budget deadlines; however, the Board considers the moral imperatives of McCleary to be the more pressing consideration.

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Making sense of McCleary

Here on the SBE Sounding Board, you’ll find a user-friendly chronology of events in the McCleary court case (also available as a PDF). The chart includes what happened, why it happened, the takeaway, and excerpts of language from court rulings and legislative reports. When it comes to understanding why the state is in contempt of the Court, these details matter. You can get a very real feel for the language of the rulings, and what the Court expects in the way of a plan to fund basic education, by reading just these few pages. This summary outlines how urgent the situation in McCleary has become, and some areas the state may be focusing on in its budget response this session.

The state’s progress toward purging contempt

The Court found the Legislature in contempt of Court in its Sep. 11, 2014 order. The Legislature can only purge contempt by complying with the original order to provide “a complete plan for fully implementing its program of basic education for each school year between now and the 2017-18 school year.” The Court’s order reads as follows:

The State failed to submit by April 30, 2014 a complete plan for fully implementing its program of basic education for each school year between now and the 2017-18 school year. Sanctions and other remedial measures are held in abeyance to allow the State the opportunity to comply with the court’s order during the 2015 legislative session. If by adjournment of the 2015 legislative session the State has not purged the contempt by complying with the court’s order, the court will reconvene to impose sanctions and other remedial measures as necessary. On the date following adjournment of the 2015 session, if the State has not complied with the court’s order, the State shall file in the court a memorandum explaining why sanctions or other remedial measures should not be imposed.

In describing the program of basic education requirements in previous decisions and orders, the court references two landmark pieces of legislation (ESHB 2261 and SHB 2776) as well as the recommendations of the Joint Task Force on Education Funding (JTFEF). In January 2013, the State Board of Education reviewed the final report. The question becomes, then, what items must be in this plan for it to comply and effectively purge the contempt?

It seems clear that the four core commitments of HB 2776 need to be included in the plan: pupil transportation, full-day kindergarten, K-3 class size, and maintenance, supplies, and operating costs (MSOC). The House and Senate budget proposals address these in different ways. On this basis, legislators have declared these budgets to be responsive to the Court’s requirement for a plan, but a few questions remain.

There are other elements of the program of basic education that previous orders emphasize, but neither budget proposal fully addresses. These are educator salaries, facilities funding, and local levy reform.

The House budget provides salary increases for state-funded K-12 employees beyond cost of living adjustments (COLAs). Are these increases sufficient to satisfy the requirements of a basic education? To quote from the Jan. 9, 2014 order (pg 5):

Another area in which the State’s Report falls short concerns personnel costs.… it skims over the fact that state funding of educator and administrative staff salaries remains constitutionally inadequate…. nothing could be more basic than adequate pay… it is deeply troubling that the State’s report does not address this component of ESHB 2261 or offer any plan for meeting its goals.

While HB 2261 did not commit to specific salary levels, it did express an intent to “enhance the current salary allocation model” (pg 56, line 35). It continued, “The legislature also understands that continuing to attract and retain the highest quality educators will require increased investments.” While the Legislature has some latitude in how to achieve this goal, providing a uniform cost-of-living adjustment in this year’s budget may not fulfill the requirement and purge the contempt.

From the same order: “…the current level of funding falls short of the JTFEF plan in every category except full day kindergarten, and, as noted, the funding for that category does not account for the additional capital investment needed to implement…” So, again, while it’s clear that the Legislature has some latitude in how to achieve the outcome, the court seems to be saying that the facilities costs associated with implementing full day kindergarten and class size reduction are an implicit commitment of ESHB 2261. The Senate, through SB 6080, provides funding for additional classrooms for class-size reductions in kindergarten through third grade. Both the Senate and House capital budgets also provide bonds and funding increases for school facilities, and the House funding includes grants for facilities needed to implement full-day Kindergarten. It would seem to be important that the final budget deal respond in some way to this aspect of the order.

And finally, local levy reform. The original language of ESHB 2261 contains even-handed language about the role of local excess levies (see pg 38). The bill emphasized that “the opportunity for local communities to invest… promotes support for public schools.” In concludes that “local levy authority remains an important component of the overall finance system… even though it is outside the state’s obligation for basic education.”

The court’s focus on local levies has been stronger, focusing on the degree to which districts have relied on them to fund basic education programs. The court has clearly determined this aspect of the system to be unconstitutional. From the original decision:

The fact that local levy funds have been at least in part supporting the basic education program is inescapable. As of 2010, all school districts have a levy lid of 28 percent, and 90 grandfathered districts maintain levy lids as high as 38 percent. Laws of 2010, ch. 237. The trial evidence does not show that increases in local funding went strictly to providing “enhancements” to “basic education.” Instead, the increase in school districts’ levy capacity over the years reflects the growing need to fill the gap between state allocations and the actual cost of providing the program of basic education. Reliance on levy funding to finance basic education was unconstitutional 30 years ago in Seattle School District, and it is unconstitutional now.

Neither chamber has proposed any local levy reform in their budgets or other legislation this session. Furthermore, increasing K-12 funding this year, absent some plan for local levies, may in fact exacerbate the extent to which they contribute to base educator salaries. For example, if the final budget effectively buys out the costs that local levies have borne in supporting basic education programs in the past – for example, costs for full day kindergarten, maintenance and supplies, or lower K-3 class size – that newly freed up levy funding may in fact contribute to new salary increases in unpredictable and inequitable ways across the state. For this reason, what you do for levy reform might be equally important to when you do it, because the longer you wait, the harder it becomes to address.

There is much hard work still ahead to get to a state budget for the next two years. Parents, teachers, employers – indeed, every citizen of Washington – should look closely at the result of the negotiations going on now to see if it gets us on track for full constitutional compliance with the state’s paramount duty by 2018. Because all of us, whether or not we’re directly involved with the state’s education system, have a great stake in realizing the promise of McCleary.

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