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Could Washington State Get Its NCLB Waiver Back?

In reading the U.S. Department of Education's announcement on testing, it's hard to believe that this is the same administration that—just a year and half ago—pulled Washington state's waiver from many of the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act because districts there aren't required to incorporate state test scores into teacher evaluations.

It's true that has a lot has changed since the spring of 2014. The opt-out movement has heated up. Many states have decided to drop-out of federally funded testing consortia. And pretty much every state has struggled to tie teacher evaluations to test scores. So the department is responding (many would say belatedly) to political realities and implementation issues.  

But now, you have the department openly touting the fact that it's allowed states to delay using test scores in evaluations until beyond the 2016-17 school year (when President Barack Obama will be out of office) and allowed Minnesota districts to make state test scores less than 1 percent of the mix on teacher evaluations.

So it's hard to imagine that Washington state—which is back under NCLB and not loving it—isn't feeling a little sore these days.

In fact, Randy Dorn, the state chief who has said he won't run for re-election, is planning to talk to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about whether the Evergreen State may have a shot at getting its flexibility back.   

Here's how it would work: Dorn said in an interview that's he's surveyed his districts. About 80 percent of them discuss state test scores with teachers during the evaluation process. Which, in his mind, means state test scores are part of the performance reviews. Dorn's wondering if that might be enough to meet the department's requirements and get the waiver reinstated, at least for those districts, which are the vast majority in Washington state.

"We're kind of getting the bottom end of the stick," Dorn said.

He also hates sending out a letter to parents saying their schools are failing: "That's the only thing I've done in my 38 years of education that was a disservice or a wrong or hurt kids."

So will Dorn's plan work? Maybe. After all, Texas, which is in pretty open waiver defiance still has its flexibility. (Even though its waiver is on high-risk).

And other waiver states that haven't thumbed their noses at the department, like New Hampshire, don't explicitly incorporate state test scores into their teacher evaluations, either. So why does New Hampshire still have a waiver? And why isn't it on high risk?

The Granite State, which only got a one-year renewal, has committed to working with its districts on resolving the issue and provided the department with information to explain how they're going to make it happen. It's hard to imagine that would have been cool back in 2011, when waivers were first rolled out. But it makes sense these days, given the department's emphasis on leeway for states. 

So since flexibility is the new watch word, will Washington state's pitch cut the mustard? Or is it a bridge too far? 

Of course, all of this will be totally moot if Congress is able to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. 

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