It's September, which means another new school year and another round of news stories dealing the with saga of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). Again this year, we are reassured by Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI) Terry Bergeson that scores are going up and all is well.
These stories hold special meaning for me. My wife and I are still deep into raising kids. Our daughter began middle school this month, and our son is a junior at Auburn High School. WASL scores are a hot topic when your kids, and your friends' kids, are the ones being scored. Additionally, 14 years ago I was part of a small group of Republicans and Democrats in the state House of Representatives who worked for three years to pass House Bill 1209, the bill that gave us the WASL and was supposed to produce comprehensive educational restructuring. Unfortunately, from that perspective, it is painfully clear to me, despite years of effort and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, how little we actually changed public education.
I was elected to the House in 1990, during the era of education reform. U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett's frightening report, A Nation at Risk, had dramatically elevated the issue of public education. Experts said our schools were too bureaucratic, standards were too low or non-existent, and kids graduated from high school needing remedial reading, writing, and math instruction from their employer or college. Across the country, reformers were striving to implement "performance-based education," a system built around establishing clear standards and requiring students to meet them. The new system would place more emphasis on outcomes - what kids are actually learning – rather than inputs such as money or time, and hold everyone accountable for the results.
In Washington, at that time, education was governed and driven by the Basic Education Act of 1977. Passed after the state Supreme Court ordered the state to enact a definition of what constituted a basic education, the law defined the state's obligation based on time spent in school – years, days, hours, credits for core subjects. All that was being measured was time spent in the system, not whether students were actually learning. Urged on by reformers and, critically, by Boeing and the rest of the business community, we set out to change that.
When I arrived in Olympia as a new member of the House Education Committee in 1991, a bipartisan group of veteran lawmakers was already working on the issue. The core group consisted of Democrats Kim Peery, Randy Dorn, and Greg Fisher, and Republicans John Betrozoff, Bill Brumsickle, and Jean Marie Brough. I joined in as a very junior member, and for the next three years we worked to pass major education reform. Our goal was nothing less than fundamental educational restructuring.
Our vision was a public education system that established clear minimum academic standards that everyone could understand, tested students to ensure they were meeting the standards, held everyone in the system accountable for the results, and freed educators from burdensome state regulations by repealing all the old bureaucratic time-based requirements: standards, assessments, accountability, deregulation, and local control. In spring 1993, after a long legislative struggle, House Bill 1209 passed with all our desired elements included. Mission accomplished. Or so I thought.
HB 1209 defined a new "performance-based education system" as "a system in which a significantly greater emphasis is placed on how well students are learning, and significantly less emphasis on state-level laws and rules that dictate how instruction is to be provided."
The bill then set new "learning goals" that would serve as the basis for the standards and assessments. All students would be expected to read with comprehension and write with skill, and know and apply the core concepts of math, of social, physical, and life sciences, of civics and history, and of geography, arts, health, and fitness.
The specifics of how to meet these goals was turned over to a new entity, the Commission on Student Learning (COS). COS was given three tasks: define state standards (Essential Academic Learning Requirements) in each of the goal subject areas, design state assessment tests (which became known as the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL), and design an accountability system.
We knew the key to really changing public education was accountability. Just forcing kids to take another test wouldn't change anything – there had to be accountability for results. So we directed the Commission on Student Learning to design and send to the Legislature an accountability system that would include financial assistance to schools that were struggling, regular reports to the Legislature and the community, a system to allow the state to "intervene in schools and school districts in which significant numbers of students fail to learn the Essential Academic Learning Requirementss," and a financial "awards system" for school buildings that demonstrate improvement in WASL scores.
Most important, students would be required to pass the high school assessment before being allowed to graduate. The bill anticipated that most students would pass the test in 10th grade. Those who did would move on to individual "educational pathways," programs that would prepare them for college or the workforce. Those that didn't pass would receive assistance until they were able to meet this minimum standard.
The job of deregulation was given to another committee, the Joint Select Committee on Educational Restructuring. This special committee of House members and senators was directed to "review all laws that might inhibit the new performance-based education system" and make a report to the full Legislature on what laws should be changed or repealed.
In terms of deregulation and local control, we couldn't have made our intent more clear. The bill said our goal was "a public school system that provides more flexibility for school boards and educators in how instruction is provided." Significantly, the section on the Essential Academic Learning Requirements said the new state standards "shall not limit the instructional strategies used by schools or school districts or require the use of special curriculum." We wanted to set the bar but turn local schools loose to achieve the standards however they saw fit.
Standards, assessments, accountability, and deregulation were the core elements of the bill, but it truly was an attempt at complete restructuring. H.B. 1209 created another new committee, which was charged with recommending to the Legislature "a new funding model for the common school system." The bill called for the creation of a new statewide technology plan, included elements regarding teacher training and early learning, and created the Center for the Improvement of Student Learning, a clearinghouse within the office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to help schools with reform, especially in the area of fostering parental involvement.
H.B. 1209 set clear deadlines. The Essential Academic Learning Requirements for reading, writing, and math were to be in place by 1995, and for science, civics, history, geography, arts, health, and fitness, by 1996. The tests for reading, writing, and math would begin in the 1995-96 school year, and for the other subjects the next year. Action on deregulation and the new funding model were supposed to occur during the 1995 legislative session. It was anticipated that all the kinks would be worked out of the standards and assessments by 2000, which is when all the accountability measures - including the mandatory graduation requirement – would take effect.
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