Test boycott puts Seattle teachers in national spotlight
By the Notebook on Feb 6, 2013 04:04 PM
This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in Education Week.
by Ross Brenneman
Since a group of Seattle high school teachers decided to boycott administration of a computerized exam in December, their protest has been embraced by opponents of high-stakes testing as a call to nationwide action.
Teachers at Garfield High School, however, portray their protest as narrowly focused against one particular test used by their district—the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP—not against assessments in general, high-stakes or otherwise.
"We are not troublemakers nor do we want to impede the high functioning of our school," the teachers wrote in a Dec. 21 statement. "We are professionals who care deeply about our students and cannot continue to participate in a practice that harms our school and our students."
The Garfield High teachers became the first in the United States to collectively boycott administration of the MAP test, a widely used computerized adaptive assessment intended to gauge students' general improvement over the course of the school year. The faculty denounced MAP at a Jan. 10 press conference as an assessment unlinked to state standards or the local curriculum, meaningless to students, and unfairly made a factor in teacher evaluation, against recommendations by the test's creators. The faculty of the 1,650-student school approved the boycott with only a few abstentions.
Seattle schools Superintendent José Banda has told teachers they must give the test by a Feb. 22 deadline or risk a 10-day unpaid suspension.
During the past month, many outside groups have expressed their support for the teachers, including the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and dozens of prominent educators.
On the other side, Matt Chapman, the president of the Portland, Ore.-based Northwest Evaluation Association, which created MAP, wrote in a Seattle Times opinion essay that Garfield's teachers didn't understand its value. Some critics of the boycott say the teachers are concerned only because MAP can be a factor in teacher evaluation. (The NWEA says assessment data can inform teacher evaluation, "but it cannot be the primary factor.")
Kris McBride, Garfield's testing coordinator, dismisses such allegations.
"I had some of my teachers in our first press conference stand up and say, 'If you want to evaluate me on what my kids learn, use the state test. I'm happy to use that. It's totally tied to what I teach in my class.' This other test is not," she said.
Both the district and NWEA websites maintain that MAP aligns with Washington state standards, though teachers question how well.
Use of time
The Garfield High teachers also criticize the time and resources devoted to the test. Seattle administers MAP two or three times per year to K-9 students, in addition to the state accountability tests mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The teachers also say that because there are no specific consequences for students from the MAP test, their students lack incentive to put forward their best efforts.
Such concerns speak to broader unhappiness with testing. Two other Seattle schools joined Garfield in a MAP boycott, while several outside groups, including the 1.5 million-member AFT and the AFT-affiliated Chicago Teachers Union, offered statements of support.
"Just because some person somewhere said that collective data is important, we have now become data collectors," AFT President Randi Weingarten said in an interview.
"It's broader than just this MAP test," she said. "What you have is a system where assessment and data collection are more important than teaching and learning, and that is wrong."
The Garfield High teachers themselves say they are focused only on addressing the quality of the district-mandated tests.
"Our staff is very clear what the struggle is about. Beyond that, anything else is speculation," said Jesse Hagopian, a Garfield history teacher. "What there's unanimity about is that the test be valid."
Supporters of high-stakes testing of students can point to new momentum, meanwhile.
In Indiana, a legislator recently introduced a bill that would deprive students of state financial aid if they failed exit exams. Many states are examining or raising the cutoff scores for their state accountability tests; on Jan. 24, Illinois became the most recent.
To the Garfield High teachers, test validity matters most. They and union leaders have hope for the forthcoming assessments tied to the Common Core State Standards. All but a handful of states have adopted the standards, for which tests and curricula are intended to be fully aligned.
Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the 3 million-member NEA, with which Garfield teachers are affiliated, said in an interview that he wants all school systems to heed those teachers.
"I would hope that in every district in America, especially ones that require district tests in addition to state tests, that they ask that question: Does this test measure what we're asking teachers to teach, and what we're asking students to learn? And if the answer to that is no, they have to do something else."