Drowning in Bubbles

Why teachers, parents, students and legislators are rebelling against the barrage of standardized tests

Drowning in Bubbles
Young Kwak
For two weeks last spring, the flood of standardized tests made Rogers High School junior Destiny Roupe dread coming to school. “When I take those tests, I feel inadequate in everything I do,” Roupe says.

It was the dehumanizing feeling that Destiny Roupe dreaded the most. She wasn't simply an individual Rogers High School junior who competed in the shot put and ran for student government — she was a number. She felt like the sum of her data, a collection of A's and B's and Trues and Falses, crunched and calculated, material for spreadsheets and graphs. For a solid month last spring, as tests were shoveled on top of tests, the feeling grew worse.

The stress was there when she went to sleep the night before a test, and it was waiting for her when she woke up. "It was like a punishment for something I hadn't done," she says.

She and her teachers knew she was a good English student. But on the tests, that confidence evaporated, and every question made her feel inadequate.

"I would go into the test worried and physically shaking," Roupe says. "I have to keep telling myself, 'I am not that test, and it doesn't define me.'"

She wasn't the only one freaking out. Her best friend confessed that she'd broken down in tears before taking one test and had to excuse herself to the bathroom before continuing. At Shadle Park High School, senior Shelby Anderson describes how her anxiety would build as a test day neared.

The fear only intensified as the test began.

"You can see that the teacher is talking, but you can't hear them because you're freaking out," Anderson says. Her signature on the test doesn't even look like hers, it's so shaky.

These days, it's not just students who have test anxiety. It's also parents, teachers and legislators. This was the first year that Washington state students faced the controversial new Smarter Balanced assessments. This was also the year that the tested got testy.

In Spokane, as teachers walked to protest state education policy, parents waved signs calling for "less testing; more teaching." In Olympia, Democratic legislators demanded, in budget negotiations, the two-year suspension of a biology test requirement they said would prevent 2,000 students from graduating. In Seattle, an entire high school refused to take the Smarter Balanced tests, and tens of thousands of students across the state followed suit.

Champions of standardized tests celebrate the way they've catalyzed and clarified the direction of education, highlighting which schools have failed which students. But even many of them have joined an emerging consensus: You can hurt the outcome by overmeasuring it.

Extended response

It's been 15 years, and anti-testing groups are still using a drawing from a Spokane fourth grader to condemn standardized testing.

In 2000, Alan Guthrie drew the Washington Assessment of Student Learning as a yeti-like creature with dagger-like claws and a snarling maw: "My WASL is a huge monster that eats children and gets stronger from their fear."

In Washington state, the modern age of standardized testing began in 1996. The WASL tests — first in English and math, later in science — were ambitious. Students had to write lengthy essays. Just having the right answer wasn't good enough. You had to show how you got it.

The grading standards could be strange, the results could be arbitrary, but just the act of measuring students mattered.

Lori Wyborney, principal at Rogers, a high school filled with low-income students, says there's a reason she'll never completely oppose standardized testing: Before standardized testing, it was easy to overlook struggling kids.

"You just taught kids. If they got it, they got it, and if they didn't, they didn't," Wyborney says. "The kids who did well were basically white, affluent kids. Kids of color and kids in poverty were behind, and stayed behind, because there was no urgency to change it."

Standardized testing, however, shined a spotlight on the cracks kids were falling through. It's one possible reason, Wyborney speculates, that minorities have expressed more support for standardized testing on surveys.

That's one reason why 2001's No Child Left Behind Act attracted bipartisan support. It meant schools had to show that an increasing number of their students were passing standardized tests in English and math each year. Not only were minority students, special education students and non-English-speaking students examined, they were given special scrutiny.

"The [underlying] law is a result of civil rights activism — of blood, tears and sweat," Sen. Cory Booker, a black Democrat from New Jersey, insisted this month.

The No Child Left Behind reforms sharpened the teeth of the WASL and other standardized tests. If schools didn't improve their student scores fast enough, they'd receive extra help at first. But eventually, they'd be labeled "failing" and face sanctions.

Drowning in Bubbles
State Superintendent Randy Dorn was elected in 2008 on a platform of reducing standardized testing. But despite his efforts, the number of standardized tests in high schools has only increased.

The stakes were high for students as well. By 2008, students were told again and again that they would need to pass the WASL to graduate. But by the time that deadline hit, the WASL's days were numbered. Running for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Randy Dorn campaigned on a promise to replace the WASL.

"I believe it needs to be shortened," Dorn said at a 2008 candidate forum in Federal Way. "It's way too long. It makes no sense to test for two weeks."

After his election, Dorn replaced the WASL with two brand-new tests, the Measurement of Student Progress and the High School Proficiency Exam. The lifespan of those assessments was short.

Thank the Common Core. Undercutting the power of No Child Left Behind was the fact that each state had the power to set the bar its students had to clear. Some states set that bar particularly low. Idaho had infamously weak eighth-grade reading standards — the second easiest in the nation.

The Common Core State Standards changed all that. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia agreed to teach similar things in math and English at each grade level: A third grader should know that one-half is bigger than one-third, for example. An eighth grader should know how to analyze word choices in novels or poems. Theoretically, diplomas in Idaho, Washington and Wisconsin would all be worth the same.

But at the same time, Common Core supercharged age-old educational arguments. The standards became a punching bag for parents to unleash their frustrations with public education. Disparate factions — from teachers unions to school-choice activists — suddenly found themselves united against the same enemy. While numerous educators continued to praise the standards, critiques of Common Core flourished: It was too easy. It was too hard. It was the federalization of education. It was a giveaway to powerful educational corporations. Kids were being experimented on.

On Facebook, snapshots of confusing worksheets and test questions, often with little to no actual connection to Common Core, went viral, stoking parental anger against the standards. Several Republican governors who had championed the standards now scrambled to condemn them.

Critics also saw profit motive at the heart of the new standards. Last year, a group of parents and teachers in Spokane rented the Bing Crosby Theater to show Standardized: Lies, Money & Civil Rights: How Testing Is Ruining Public Education, a jeremiad against the for-profit testing industry. After all, Common Core was the education industry's equivalent of a Black Friday stampede. With nearly every state adopting the standard — including Washington, Idaho and Oregon — schools suddenly needed new textbooks, lesson plans, worksheets, tests and test-prep packages based on Common Core.

They are the hardest state standardized tests ever given in Washington, administrators say proudly, the first to truly measure whether students are ready for college.

"We wanted to raise the standards, raise the rigor," Dorn says. But standardized testing critics saw a test designed for failure. In Spokane Public Schools, less than a third of 11th graders passed the English section of the Smarter Balanced test, while only a fifth passed the math section. And that was actually better than the state average.

Drowning in Bubbles
Young Kwak
Steven Gering, chief academic officer at Spokane Public Schools, suggests ditching the Smarter Balanced test in high school for the SAT.

Steven Gering, chief academic officer for Spokane Public Schools, defends the Smarter Balanced tests as tough and rigorous. But he also thinks the testing focus has turned myopic.

"Kids should be learning. Taxpayers are investing money, and there should be expectations that kids are making academic progress," Gering says. "[But] I think we've tried to boil it down to a simple test score to say if a school is successful or not successful, and I think that's a mistake."

All of the above

At a school board meeting earlier this month, a Spokane Public Schools assessments guru flips through slides of tables and bar graphs, showcasing where Spokane students passed and failed the Smarter Balanced assessments.

School board member Deana Brower remarks that the presentation makes for a great snapshot. But — and she apologizes for sounding like a broken record — she keeps coming back to a question: How long does all this testing take anyway?

"I think the standards are great. I think the rigor is great," Brower says. "I have strong reservations about the amount of time you're using, and the loss of instructional time to acquire this data."

From the first bell on the first day of school, teachers are in a race against time to teach everything students are required to know. End-of-year testing is a double whammy: It means students have to know all that information earlier — whenever the big test is administered — and it means they need to spend time practicing the test itself instead of simply learning the material.

A decade ago, Lewis and Clark High School teacher Eric Strate says, teachers used to joke that testing was becoming so prevalent that soon it would entirely consume the last six weeks of school. Now, Strate says, chuckling, they're basically there. This spring, the LC library was closed for six weeks — not just restricted, but closed — so library computers could be used for standardized tests.

"The last seven weeks of school, I had one week where I saw all my kids without them being gone for some sort of test," Strate says.

It's not the Smarter Balanced tests alone that are the issue. It's the cacophony: Students take end-of-the-year Smarter Balanced tests, but they also take multiple benchmark Smarter Balanced tests throughout the year. Elementary students face WaKIDS, Kolla, and Developmental Reading Assessment tests, while older kids have to pass end-of-course exams in geometry, algebra and biology. Then there are the tests aimed at students going to college — the PSAT, the SAT, the ACT, and the barrage of Advanced Placement tests. Add quizzes, unit tests and semester finals from individual teachers, and you get a sense of the fatigue.

Even Linda Carney, a Shadle Park math teacher with some of the best AP Calculus scores in the district, says many of her kids are so exhausted from all the tests and studying that they have very little energy left for learning.

"You can just see it in their eyes," Carney says. "They're just tired."

One test can cannibalize the performance of another. At Rogers, senior Reed Johnson says the Smarter Balanced testing sucked up time he could have been studying for AP tests. "It caused me to perform pretty poorly on the AP testing," he says.

Plenty of administrators say things have gone too far. Matt Handelman, superintendent of the Coeur d'Alene School District, says there's an education pendulum that swings back and forth between too little accountability and too much obsession with it.

"Where you want the pendulum is the middle. We're not in the middle," Handelman says. "The needle is plopping way toward the end of 'uber-accountability' through testing."

Arne Duncan, Barack Obama's famously test-focused Secretary of Education, echoed that concern: "Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy and cause unnecessary stress," he said. "Testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room."

Dorn is well aware and plenty frustrated with this reality. He says he hears from lots of voters. "They come to me and they're mad, and they say, 'You doubled the testing!" Dorn says.

He knows they have a point. During his tenure, he says, he managed to reduce state-required tests in elementary and middle school. But in high school, the Smarter Balanced tests were added, without removing end-of-course assessments in algebra and geometry and 10th-grade writing and reading. Dorn says this is absurd.

"I agree with people that we test too much in the high school," Dorn says. "They're tested to death. It's a nightmare. The logistics are crazy."

Last week, the Idaho State Board of Education made it optional for districts to administer the Smarter Balanced tests to ninth graders, and waived the Smarter Balanced graduation requirement. But with the Washington State Board of Education unwilling to take such an action, Dorn is left railing against the system he presides over.

Last week, he announced he's not running for re-election.

Abort, retest, fail

But in another aspect of testing, Dorn finds plenty to celebrate. Scantron bubbles and blue books have been swapped out for computers.

Two years ago, Washington state stopped paying for paper standardized tests. "We went from 55 percent of our schools taking the tests on computers to up to 94 percent," Dorn says.

Technology has advantages. The Smarter Balanced test is adaptive, changing the questions it asks depending on performance, to zero in on strengths and weaknesses. It can offer more detailed feedback to students and teachers. Ideally, sending off scores digitally shrinks the amount of time the tests take to grade, slashing costs and returning the results to teachers faster.

Yet technology has another side: For the first time last year, Hutton Elementary teacher Ladd Smith's third-graders tackled the English section of the Smarter Balanced test. Stacks of laptops were rolled into his classroom on a cart.

The problems started immediately. Some laptops glitched out and couldn't load the software at all. Others hadn't been charged properly, and low-battery messages popped up in the middle of testing. But finally, when their tests were completed, all students had to do was click "submit," and their tests were sent off to be graded.

Or so they thought. The code students typed in to load up the tests, it turned out, was obsolete. The test wasn't valid. The tests sent off were just gone, as surely as if they'd been incinerated.

"All that work they put in was for naught," Smith says. He says eyes went wide when he explained to his third-graders that they'd have to take the test all over again, this time with different questions.

"They were visibly perplexed and upset, and they had lots of questions into why this happened," Smith says. "They were excited to take it, and they took it and realized it didn't count. It was demoralizing."

The same thing happened to third-graders in Richland and Mukilteo. Across the state, teachers and students told tales of screens freezing, headphone audio glitching, computers restarting and browser windows crashing. Even when everything works right, the computerized tests can flummox younger kids.

"Looking at the blizzard of black-and-white text on the screen is very unfriendly for a third-grader," Smith says.

Just the act of typing challenges third-graders who have to search laboriously for each letter, especially low-income kids who don't have computers in their homes. "They haven't matured to be able to endure that kind of typing in the keyboard," Smith says.

But to Dorn, these shortcomings don't represent a strike against technology as much as they represent an imperative: Schools need more laptops for students so testing sessions don't clog up computer labs. Students need to be taught how to type and how to use computers.

"Do you think being able to manipulate and use technology is an important skill in the 21st century?" Dorn asks. It's a rhetorical question.

None of the above

Schools across the nation wrestled with how to get more of their students to pass the new standardized tests. In north Seattle, Nathan Hale High School took a different tack.

When the Smarter Balanced test came up in the Nathan Hale Senate — a body made up of teachers, parents, students and administrators — opposition was immediate.

The test wasn't required for graduation. It took time out of class. Two-thirds of the students were predicted to fail.

"It was an eight-hour test on a computer that doesn't help us get into colleges," says Elijah Falk, a student who served on the Nathan Hale Senate last year. "I thought that sounded bogus."

Falk knew that a good Smarter Balanced score would let him automatically avoid remedial courses when attending a Washington state college. He didn't really care.

The parents on the Nathan Hale Senate sent out emails to the parents of every junior, telling them how they could opt their children out of Smarter Balanced. Falk and other students went classroom to classroom, handing out brochures and explaining to the juniors that they didn't have to take the tests at all.

The result: Every single Nathan Hale High School junior — all 280 — refused to take either the math or English Smarter Balanced standardized test.

"I thought it was awesome," Falk says. "I was really excited about it. I was not expecting to get that kind of response from all of the students for my grade. It was empowering."

The week the test would have been given, there wasn't a march or a party or a skip day. Instead, school took place as it always did. Teachers taught. Students learned. "One of the biggest [arguments against the test] was the loss of class time and learning time that we knew was more valuable," Falk says.

Breann Treffry, a leader of Spokane's anti-testing movement, says that the boycott in Seattle helped wake up parents across the state. Social media sites buzzed with how easy it was in many states to "opt out" and refuse to take the test.

"Nathan Hale got so much press. It brought a lot of attention, even to the fact you can opt out," Treffry says. "It feels like such an act of defiance, so people are hesitant to do it. When you see so many other people doing it, it's easier to do for yourself."

In the Mead school district, Mead High School gave the Smarter Balanced tests early, and nearly every student took them. But by the time Mount Spokane High School students started testing, Nathan Hale's boycott had made headlines, and most juniors refused the test.

Local parents emailed Treffry, asking what they needed to do to get their kids out of the test. She says they had worries about test anxiety, how student data would be used and how the testing movement is "corrupting our public schools."

Statewide, more than 22,000 juniors chose not to take the Smarter Balanced assessments — more than the entire population of Moses Lake. The boycotts tanked test scores across the state. At Lewis and Clark High School, only one out of every 10 juniors passed the Smarter Balanced math test. One reason the scores were so low? Forty percent of juniors refused to take it. Similar testing boycott movements exploded in New York, New Jersey and Florida.

Even students who took the tests rebelled. Johnson, the Rogers student, says he knew plenty of juniors who just blitzed through, clicking answers at random.

"Anytime there was a short answer [question], people would just write a little joke," Johnson says. They'd write "Deez Nutz," for instance, or type in a series of numbers and symbols to resemble a penis.

This is what happens when the testing monster is toothless: If stakes are too low, students don't bother to try, and the data's nearly worthless.

How, then, do you make students care?

You could appeal to their sense of civic duty: Robin Munson, the assistant Washington state superintendent in charge of testing, urges adults to encourage students to take the tests seriously in the future. "Hopefully the students wouldn't want their school inaccurately labeled inadequate," Munson says.

You could make the tests the law: The only way to let your children skip the Smarter Balanced tests in Idaho, for example, is to remove them from the public school system entirely.

You could require students to pass the test to graduate: The same English Smarter Balanced test was given to juniors and sophomores last year. But for sophomores, the tests satisfied an actual graduation requirement. The difference was startling: More than 30 percent of juniors refused to take the test, so only 26.3 percent of them passed. But only about 3 percent of sophomores refused the test, and 74 percent passed.

Fighting test apathy by upping the stakes, however, risks creating too much test anxiety. "Here we're trying to motivate kids to learn with fear," Dorn laments. "Education becomes this huge hurdle and stress barrier."

It was a tension facing the Washington state legislature when it decided to allow about 2,000 students to graduate, despite not meeting the biology-test graduation requirement or the "collection of evidence" alternative.

"It was clear that there was a problem with the test that was affecting students," says state Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane.

But state Senate Republicans condemned the move as lowering standards while large numbers of Washington state high school graduates appear to be unprepared for college, landing in remedial classes or dropping out after freshman year.

"It's really expensive for us to put kids in college who have been sold short in their high school education," says Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane. "We need to get those kids ready."

Meanwhile, schools were facing another problem. Each year, the expectations created by No Child Left Behind increased automatically. By 2014, the standard had ratcheted up so high that it requires literal perfection: If one child fails the state test, a school is labeled failing.

With Congress still fighting over how to fix the law, the Obama administration has been offering districts waivers — they would hold off certain No Child Left Behind consequences — but the waiver had its own list of demands.

Then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wanted Washington state to use test scores on teacher evaluations. "In fact, most teachers and principals I talk with want to be held responsible for students' progress," Duncan wrote last year.

Without the waiver, districts in Washington state would lose control of nearly $40 million in federal funds. Dorn and Gov. Jay Inslee pleaded with the legislature to accept Duncan's terms, while the teachers union pleaded with them not to.

Plenty of Republicans supported Duncan's proposal. "Metrics are important so we can identify where we need to improve our education system," Baumgartner says. If the government can't measure something, he says, it shouldn't do it. Though schools have an expansive new teacher evaluation system, he says that test scores are the only objective metric that could compare teachers in one school with another.

On the other hand, evaluating teachers using test scores can backfire, creating perverse incentives: Why choose to teach in struggling, low-income schools, when those students are the least likely to see improvement? In other states, art teachers — even custodians — have been evaluated on their school's test scores. In Atlanta, 178 teachers and principals were caught cheating to increase their standardized test scores. They blamed fears that bad test scores would hurt their evaluations.

In Washington state, Democrats refused to support the bill, and it failed to pass. Duncan wasn't bluffing. In Spokane, the loss of the waiver meant the school district lost the flexibility to decide how nearly $2 million was spent. The district had to cut a few positions for specialists to intervene when students are in danger of dropping out.

But Billig believes the legislature made the right decision, arguing that low-income schools' test scores are particularly unreliable.

"If you go to Bemiss Elementary, there's 100 percent turnover in the classroom," Billig says. "If five out of your 25 kids have been with you for the whole year, now you're evaluating your teaching on five kids?"

Multiple choices

In many ways, the testing debate has created a rare bipartisan convergence: The rhetoric from liberal Democrats in Western Washington sounds almost identical to the rhetoric you hear from conservative Republicans in North Idaho.

"Great schools are locally controlled," wrote Washington state Rep. Chris Reykdal, a Democrat from Tumwater running for state superintendent next year. "It's time to limit the federal government's role in education."

During the most recent legislative session, Reykdal sponsored an education bill that would have eliminated three of the seven big high school standardized tests.

"We're administering tests to the old standards and administering new tests to the new standards," Reykdal says. "It's brutal for our school districts to administer ... and it's overkill for our students."

The bill also would create a mandatory senior year class as an alternative for students who couldn't pass the test.

Dorn championed the bill, and it shot out of the House three separate times with nearly unanimous support. Every Spokane-area representative, from the far-right Matt Shea to the far-left Timm Ormsby, voted "yes." It would have saved the state about $14 million a year, more than enough to pay for 350 entry-level Spokane teacher salaries. "We should use that money to help these kids and not punish kids," Dorn says.

But Senate Education Committee chair Steve Litzow, a Republican from Mercer Island, has been ardently opposed to attempts to weaken standardized testing. "Lowering standards is a poor excuse for a decades-long failure to create an education system that works for everyone," he wrote in June.

Litzow refused to even hold a hearing on Reykdal's bill this year, and the status quo remained the status quo.

Still, a shift in education seems inevitable. In Congress, both the House and Senate have passed bills to rewrite the No Child Left Behind legislation, emphasizing giving more control to states. They just need to agree on the details.

Duncan, meanwhile, is resigning in December. And last Saturday, Obama took to Facebook to announce that, while he's supportive of testing in moderation, he's heard from parents and teachers concerned about the excess.

"I want to fix that," Obama said. "Tests shouldn't occupy too much classroom time or crowd out teaching and learning." His new plan caps standardized testing at 2 percent of classroom time, and promises parents they'll be notified if schools exceed that time. The administration plans to release additional details of its proposal in January.

In many states, the pullback from standardized testing has already begun. The Washington State Board of Education has already reduced the Smarter Balanced score needed for graduation. States like Maine and Missouri have ditched the Smarter Balanced exam, and the national testing landscape grows more fragmented. In New York, 28 high schools have received waivers for all but one standardized test. Instead, students in the New York Performance Standards Consortium create portfolios and give oral presentations on in-depth topics, like grad students defending their theses. New Hampshire's investigating a similar model.

In Coeur d'Alene, Handelman urges against drastic changes. Veteran educators have felt the whiplash from schools chasing after one educational fad for a few years, then suddenly veering off course to chase another. That gets exhausting, not to mention expensive.

"Teachers have been working their tails off to learn the new standards. If the rug is pulled out from under them again?" Handelman says. "I never feel like knee-jerking is a good idea."

Gering, the Spokane Public Schools administrator, has a proposal that's both simple and radical: Throw out the Smarter Balanced test in high school entirely, and stick with a more familiar one. "Right now the Smarter Balanced doesn't open doors... If I were king of the world, I would not use the Smarter Balanced," Gering says, "I would use the SAT or the ACT."

Washington, like Idaho, has rock-bottom rates of high school graduates attending college. Requiring students to achieve a certain score on the SAT to graduate would knock down one more barrier to getting into college, Gering argues. It also would count for the federal testing requirement. Two birds, one stone. That's what Michigan does. It's an idea Billig is seriously looking into.

Students still have anxiety when taking the SAT, but feel that the reward — getting into a better college — is more appealing. "When we started paying for the SAT and the PSAT, families are all over those assessments," Gering says. Parents not only didn't fight it, they sent the district thank-you notes.

Still, he argues that one test alone won't suffice. Gering remembers a chemistry professor he had in college who posted "53 percent" — the dismal passing rate of the class on a big test — on the board, as if it were a sign of his academic rigor. "Are you proud of that? That almost everybody failed your exam?" Gering says. "You realize that people didn't learn? ... That's an example of bad teaching." The professor had waited too long to figure out that his students didn't know the material.

Gering pushes for smaller, more nimble tests spread throughout the year. In Spokane Public Schools, some students throughout the year take AP Insight tests — shorter practice exams that automatically analyze where students struggle and what misconceptions they have. The tests advise teachers and give students personalized tutoring. Long before that stressful big testing week, students already know what they know, and know what they need to know.

It's a reminder, amid all the controversy and anger surrounding testing, that tests still have a role to play: Climactic end-of-the-year tests let teachers know if their students succeeded, and give them a target to shoot for. But other tests teach them how to aim.

"Good teaching is good teaching," Gering says, "And good teaching includes assessing kids in an ongoing manner."♦


Global Rankings

As the backlash against standardized testing has grown, many activists have turned their criticism international. The Program for International Student Assessment, which tests 15-year-olds in math, science and reading every three years, has been used for more than a decade to point to inadequacy (especially in math instruction) in the American education system.

But in May of 2014, hundreds of international academics signed an open letter attacking the PISA test. "The new PISA regime, with its continuous cycle of global testing, harms our children and impoverishes our classrooms," the letter reads.

The letter noted how radically the test had impacted the educational system of countries relying on short-term fixes to climb the rankings. It blames PISA for the "dramatically increased reliance on quantitative measures" like standardized testing.

Yet anti-standardized testing activists have also relied on the test to strengthen their cause: Finland and Canada score highly, despite using standardized tests more rarely. One thing is clear: Amid the flurry of education reforms in the United States, its international scores have remained stubbornly flat. (DANIEL WALTERS)

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...