Seattle Teachers Hold Steady to Boycott as Testing Backlash Grows

Around the country, communities are rising up against the testing-driven school reform movement.

By Julianne Hing Jan 24, 2013

With more Seattle public schools joining the standardized testing boycott which has flung his district into the national spotlight, Seattle Public Schools chief Jose Banda announced on Wednesday that he would be organizing a task force to investigate possible alternatives to his district’s testing regime and the MAP test in question. The new task force, formed immediately, "will have the opportunity to explore and review the strengths and limitations of the MAP assessment, and will consider potential alternatives to future district testing programs," Banda said in a statement.

But this isn’t what he told Seattle teachers. On Wednesday, Banda issued a directive informing teachers that those who do not administer the MAP would be considered insubordinate and face suspension, with ten days of unpaid leave.

It was not the response that teachers were looking for. "It was deeply disheartening," Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian told Colorlines. "I was deeply saddened that our superintendent would take that tone of disrespect and threats to the people who are the backbone of his education system."

It is but the latest chapter in a fight over a testing-driven school reform movement which has been brewing for years, and which is hardly confined to Seattle.

Nearly three weeks ago the entire teaching staff at Garfield High School publicly refused to administer the so-called MAP test. They came to their position after a unanimous all staff vote, and Garfield’s parent teacher association and student government have both stood by Garfield teachers. The school community has myriad frustrations with the test. The test, used ostensibly as a diagnostic tool to assess where students stand, is also used punitively to evaluate teachers. That is, in keeping with a growing national trend, part of Seattle teachers’ evaluations are based on how well their students perform on standardized tests. In Seattle, students’ poor MAP scores can trigger a series of accountability mechanisms for teachers. But the MAP is not tied to students’ grades or graduation requirements and so, while the test holds high stakes for teachers, students easily dismiss the test.

But it’s not just students who find little meaning in the tests. Teachers have complained that the test results are statistically insignificant, and that their students’ test scores can vary widely throughout the year. The testing design is such that the computer-administered tests "adapt" to the test-taker. Wrong answers are followed by other questions of similar or lesser difficulty, whereas each successive correct answer forces the test questions to get harder and harder. It can make the test-taking experience a simultaneously meaningless and demoralizing one. "Many students race each other to see who can finish first," Hagopian said. "And why wouldn’t they?"

Critics of the MAP are quick to point out that even aside all of the MAP’s problems, it was acquired nearly four years ago in the midst of terrible scandal. A Washington state audit in 2011 found the former Seattle Schools superintendent, the late Maria Goodloe-Johnson, committed a serious ethics violation when she failed to disclose that she was sitting on the board of directors of the organization which sold the MAP test to the district in the first place.

The MAP is but one of a suite of other state and federally mandated tests that Seattle students must take. With all the problems with the MAP, Garfield teachers decided they’d had enough. While Garfield’s boycott is the largest testing boycott in recent memory, the testing backlash is far from isolated. Last year, Chicago teachers brought the district to a standstill for over a week; during it, teachers unleashed their anger at the testing-driven school reform movement which now dominates their students’ educational lives. Last summer, New York City parents joined a protest against standardized tests which included educators and students. And this week the Texas House released a preliminary budget which eliminates all state funding for standardized tests. And so, Seattle teachers’ defiance has fired up the education movement far beyond just Seattle, where four schools have now joined the boycott. Garfield teachers received a statement of support signed by high-profile education advocates and testing critics like Jonathan Kozol, Diane Ravitch, and Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union president who led the recent strike.

"We’re seeing growing pockets of resistance among teachers, but a lot of this has to do with the pushback against corporate education reform," said Wayne Au, an education professor at University of Washington-Bothell. "There’s union bashing going on, there’s teacher bashing going on, and this really bogus idea of using test scores to evaluate teachers that’s making its way into education policy at the federal and state level."

Indeed, especially for the poor students and students of color whose schools face the most political pressure to raise their performance, a testing-driven education is the new mandate. President Obama’s signature education reform initiative, Race to the Top, exchanged money for promises and new policy that’s driven largely by a focus on teacher accountability. States which promised to tie teacher evaluations to their students’ test scores and to use the data collected via standardized tests to understand and weed out "ineffective" teachers received money. Tests play an increasingly central role even though many actual testing experts and designers warn that standardized tests are far too blunt a tool to do the kind of assessments for which they’re now being used.

"It’s been absurd," Hagopian said. "This is a test that is so egregious that it just cannot be administered anymore. And that’s where Garfield’s singular voice is."

Banda has given teachers until February 22 before his directive kicks in.