State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal may prove a force to be reckoned with, as state lawmakers look to address funding inequities – and presumably, performance – in Washington’s K-12 basic education system. Frank and assertive testimony by Reykdal January 17 to legislators on the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee suggests that improving actual academic outcomes won’t get overshadowed by the political battle beginning to unfold around fully funding basic education.
Washington’s K-12 performance indicators are weak in several respects. Less than half of 4th and 8th graders score “proficient” in math, reading and science, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Less than one-third of high school entrants attain a postsecondary degree by seven years after their class graduates. More than half of students at Washington community and technical colleges require remedial coursework, suggesting their high school diplomas were granted too easily.
The forecast anticipates a $2.6 billion surplus in the three key K-12 funds in the 2017-19 biennium (p. 74). The funds are General Fund-State, Education Legacy Trust Account, and the Opportunity Pathways Account.
A former Democratic state representative from Washington’s 22nd District from 2012 through 2016, Reykdal told committee members at the January 17 meeting that although “putting $3.5 billion in the system is critical, it’s more critical it be done in different ways.”
A report to a legislative task force puts the needed next installment for McCleary at roughly $3 billion for the coming biennium, although state lawmakers make varying estimates.
Reykdal said, “The greatest tragedy to me would be a couple years down the road we say we’ve met a court mandate, we’ve fully funded a system” and the graduation rate “is barely ticking up.”
Fixing Graduation Rate Disparities
At the January 17 meeting, Reykdal offered a blunt diagnosis for panel members on the current state K-12 system, noting in particular the disparities in academic achievement. State data show Latino and black students graduate high school at a rate 10 and 9 percent below the state average of 78 percent, respectively. Low-income students in Washington have a 66 percent graduation rate. The national average is 81 percent.
“We have populations in our state that have not been well served by our system,” Reykdal said. Among his recommendations are tailoring high school curriculum better for students pursuing trade and vocational careers, rather than relying on a “narrow” 24-credit requirement that puts the state in a “pretty awkward place.”
“We all want more pathways, but when your high school diploma doesn’t really call for any of that (vocational trades), it should not surprise us” that students don’t pursue those options, he said.
He also urged committee members to consider eliminating “collection of evidence,” an alternative to required standardized testing in which students build portfolios to prove they know the test material. As Reykdal sees it, a student portfolio is “more of an autopsy.”
“If your arm didn’t work, you would actually want some doctor to repair your arm,” Reykdal said. “You wouldn’t want to write an essay with the other arm saying all the great things you used to do with the arm when it did work.”
Mandatory Standardized Tests Questioned
However, Reykdal also said standardized test results should be de-linked from graduation, even though they often play a valuable role in showing where students need improvement. An important remedy is better and more focused coursework to improve student capabilities, he said.
Reykdal’s emphasis on K-12 accountability is well-timed to implementation of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The 2015 law preserves standardized testing provisions from the No Child Left Behind Act, but allows states to set up individual accountability plans. A state consolidated plan draft was released in November under then-State Superintendent Randy Dorn, but Reykdal says he intends to release the final plan not until September, after careful consideration.
Committee Chair State Sen. Hans Zeiger (R-25) seemed to agree with Reykdal that K-12 solutions involve more than just spending more money.
“We need to be able to hold” agencies running the state education system “accountable for the outcomes,” Zeiger said.
How Learning Begins During Infancy
Reykdal’s emphasis on education quality dovetailed with testimony at the same meeting by State Department of Early Learning Director Ross Hunter, on the link between early childhood development and K-12 success.
A former Democratic state representative from the 48th District, Hunter stressed a growing body of research showing that childhood experiences greatly affect an infant’s developing brain. “The amount of stimulation, the vocabulary they’re exposed to, have long-term effects,” he said.
While a positive home environment helps increase a child’s IQ, adverse factors such as physical abuse, parental drug use, and prolonged neglect can negatively alter an infant’s brain and raise stress hormone levels. Disparities in child vocabulary can appear as early as 18 months, said Hunter.
This leads to social problems when they enter kindergarten, and a child’s capacity for delayed gratification is a “strikingly accurate” prediction whether they end up in the criminal justice system as a teen or young adult, Hunter said.
Those social issues also influence a child’s school readiness, with 65 percent of low-income five-year-olds not sufficiently prepared for kindergarten, Hunter said. His goal is to have 90 percent of all five-year-olds in Washington prepared to enter the K-12 system by 2020.
The state could also change the academic calendar year to avoid learning opportunity gaps that occur during summer months. It was a proposal raised during the meeting by State Sen. Andy Billig (D-3).
Billig said he was “glad that closing the opportunity gap is one of the priorities, as it should be. It’s, I think maybe, one of the biggest challenges, the biggest challenge that we face. The research shows that summer learning loss is one of, if not the biggest, cause for the opportunity gap…”