Peninsula school officials, state resist federal requirement for 'failing' school letters

By Arwyn Rice
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — If most fail, is it perhaps the test that is wrong?

That's what school district officials and statewide organizations are telling the federal government about a requirement that would force nearly all schools in Washington state to send letters to parents stating their children's schools are failing.

Two North Olympic Peninsula school boards — Port Angeles and Port Townsend — are supporting the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction as it asks for an exemption for this year from the requirement.

They are among 77 school boards in the state that have passed resolutions urging Congress to amend and reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, last updated in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act.

It has been 13 years since the law has been revised — a law that once was updated at least every five years, the resolution notes.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools that do not meet the “annual yearly progress” goals for the 2013-14 school year are considered to be failing under the federal plan that has required schools to annually increase the percentage of students passing math and reading exams.

This year that increase reached its peak. The act requires all schools to have 100 percent of students, at all grade levels, meeting grade-level standards.

Those schools that have not obtained this standard are required to send letters to parents saying the schools are failing.

The letters must be sent at least 14 days before the start of the school year.

The result of the letters will be an erosion of public confidence, making it harder to pass local levy and bond measures needed to continue school improvement, according to the Washington State School Directors' Association, the statewide association of local school boards.

“It's impossible to meet the requirement. It was flawed from the get-go,” said Steve Baxter, chairman of the Port Angeles School Board, which approved a resolution in support of the state request in May.

Even if most students were able to meet the requirement, a large number of the special education students will never be able to reach that goal, Baxter said.

The Port Townsend School Board approved a similar resolution on May 12.

Port Townsend School Superintendent David Engle said he has been preparing a letter to inform parents that they can transfer their students to another school or district — but hopes that he won't have to because there is nowhere for them to go.

“It's going to create all kinds of poisonous public perceptions,” he said.

Cape Flattery, Quillayute Valley and Sequim school boards plan to consider similar resolutions at meetings this month.

Representatives of other districts in the North Olympic Peninsula did not respond to requests for information. Many are taking vacations during the summer break.

Port Angeles School District students now score above state averages in nearly all categories at all grade levels, district officials say, while Stevens Middle School has won recent awards for excellence in science education and received high scores on other exams, and Port Angeles High School's graduation rate improved to 85 percent in 2014, and has won a recent state award for overall improvement.

Under the federal plan, all of Port Angeles' schools are likely to be considered failing schools, according to the last few years of state testing statistics.

“We're doomed to failure on this one,” Baxter said.

Nearly every school in the state is expected to receive a failing grade, he said.

Eight members of Washington's congressional delegation, including Sen. Patty Murray, Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor, who represents the 6th Congressional District, expressed strong support for Washington's request in their own letter to the U.S. Department of Education.

“While the requirement's intent is to give parents the opportunity to transfer their child out of a failing school, if every school is failing, there will be no option to transfer,” the letter said.

The federal Department of Education imposed the letter requirement when it cancelled the state's waiver that exempted it from funding penalties for not meeting the stringent requirements of No Child Left Behind.

Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have been granted waivers under the law, and none are expected to meet annual yearly progress requirements.

Washington state was the first to have its waiver revoked in April, due to a disagreement over how teacher performance will be evaluated, and several other states have been notified that they are in danger of having their waivers pulled.

“This federal directive is a wholesale mislabeling of our schools,” said David Iseminger, a Lake Stevens school director and member of the state school directors association board.

“Many of these schools have been recognized for improved graduation rates, closing achievement gaps, high scores on national tests like the ACT and SAT and other signs of excellence,” he said.

“That 14-day letter does nothing to further any education goals. In fact, it does quite the opposite,” Iseminger said.

The state school directors' association cited several major concerns in its letter.

■   No state and few schools in the U.S. will meet the 100 percent requirement.

■   The original intent of the legislation was to give parents an option to send their children to non-failing schools, of which there will be few.

■   The only impact of the letters will be punitive. Good schools will be listed with those that are less successful, the group said.

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Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5070, or at arwyn.rice@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 13. 2014 7:57PM
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