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Seattle Teachers Deliver a Powerful Lesson

Sarah Jaffe Feb 22

On Jan. 10 the staff of Garfield High School voted unanimously to refuse to administer the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test to their ninth-grade students. They’ve held firm since, even as the superintendent of schools has threatened them with a 10-day unpaid suspension. Meanwhile, teachers at other Seattle-area schools have joined their boycott.

“Garfield has a long tradition of cultivating abstract thinking, lyrical innovation, trenchant debate, civic leadership, moral courage and myriad other qualities for which our society is desperate, yet which cannot be measured, or inspired by bubbling answer choice ‘E,’” wrote Garfield history teacher Jesse Hagopian in a Seattle Times op-ed.

Garfield’s Parent-Teacher-Student Association and student government are both backing the teachers, and the teachers’ union, the Seattle Education Association (an affiliate of the National Education Association), has been holding phone banks and rallies in support. NEA president Dennis van Roeckel called the teachers’ stand a “defining moment within the education profession.”

As the boycott has become national news, it has attracted support around the country. A letter in solidarity with the Garfield teachers has been signed by close to 5,000 educators, authors and activists, including former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch; Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis; Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities; Deborah Meier of the Coalition of Essential Schools; Pedro Noguera, professor of education at New York University and more than a dozen faculty members at the City University of New York. During a “national day of action” on Feb. 6, events were held in cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, OR, Berkeley, CA and Rochester, NY.

FIRM STAND

The Seattle teachers’ firm stand has been “amazing,” said Jean Anyon, professor of social and educational policy at the CUNY Graduate Center. “There have been very few groups that have decided to defy these tests,” she pointed out. “In terms of an outright boycott by a[n entire] school, if it’s not the first, it’s close to it.”

The MAP test was acquired for about $4 million by former Seattle schools superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson while she was on the board of the company that sells it; a state audit in 2011 found that she committed a serious ethics violation by failing to disclose this fact. Ninth and tenth graders in Seattle already take five additional tests required by the state, and eleventh and twelfth graders take three. The MAP is not required by the state and doesn’t affect students’ grades — but it is used to evaluate teachers, who point out that many students do not take the test seriously.

Additionally, the MAP is a computer-adaptive test, which means that if the student gets a question wrong, the next one is easier; if she gets an answer right, the next one is harder. “Students who are…sick of assessments find out quickly that if they choose random answers, the questions get easier,” writes assessment expert Jem Muldoon.

Ira Shor, a professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center who writes on composition theory and urban education, said that many tests used in K-12 assessment “produce unreliable, unreproducible and even faked results. Yet these tests are used to judge what students know and how well teachers are doing their job.”

RISING CONCERNS

“All over the country, parents, teachers, superintendents, lawyers and university folks have been signing petitions and publishing articles about the grotesque misuse of high-stakes testing,” said Michelle Fine, distinguished professor of psychology and urban education at the Graduate Center. But those protests have gained little traction, she added — in part because the Obama administration “has really endorsed the overuse of high-stakes testing on students, on teachers and on schools.”

Teachers’ opposition to the resulting distortions of education has been on the rise, and misuse of testing was a central issue in the Chicago Teachers Union strike last fall.

Seattle’s dissident teachers originally received a Feb. 22 deadline to administer the MAP or face a 10-day suspension without pay. Seattle schools superintendent Jose Banda withdrew that threat on Feb. 4 but then ordered Garfield administrators to administer the test the following day. A contributor to the scrapthemap.wordpress.com website described the scene:

“Admins came into classrooms and tried to pull students out to take the MAP test in the library. Students stared straight ahead, and wouldn’t budge.

“In a library with about 60 computer stations set up for the MAP, there were single digit numbers of students sitting at computers. Of those, many sat at the computers and refused to press even a single button.”

Banda has also announced that he’ll organize a task force to investigate possible alternatives to the testing regime and the MAP in particular, but the teachers are refusing to back down. Ravitch and other supporters have vowed to raise money for them if they are suspended.

“We know that high-stakes tests are being used to redline the poor and working class out of access to a quality education, and are used to get rid of teachers” in ways that are hard to justify, said Fine.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Clarion, the newspaper of the Professional Staff Congress/CUNY, the union local that represents faculty and staff at the City University of New York.