Standardized test backlash: Some Seattle teachers just say 'no'

Resistance to standardized tests has been simmering for years, but now a group of Seattle teachers is in open revolt. No longer will they administer the tests, they say, citing a waste of public resources.

By , Correspondent

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    Students walk out of the lunchroom past a poster urging preparing for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessments System (MCAS) tests, in this March 1999 file photo. Massachusetts students who don't pass the test don't graduate.
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(Updated Saturday, Jan. 12, at 1:30 p.m. EST)

Forty-five minutes after school let out Thursday afternoon, 19 teachers here at Seattle's Garfield High School worked their way to the front of an already-crowded classroom, then turned, leaned their backs against the wall of whiteboards, and fired the first salvo of open defiance against high-stakes standardized testing in America's public schools.

To a room full of TV cameras, reporters, students, and colleagues, the teachers announced their refusal to administer a standardized test that ninth-graders across the district are mandated to take in the first part of January. Known as the MAP test – for Measures of Academic Progress – it is intended to evaluate student progress and skill in reading and math.

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First one teacher, then another, and then more stepped forward to charge that the test wastes time, money, and dwindling school resources. It is also used to evaluate teacher quality.

“Our teachers have come together and agreed that the MAP test is not good for our students, nor is it an appropriate or useful tool in measuring progress,” said Kris McBride, academic dean and testing coordinator at Garfield High. “Additionally, students don’t take it seriously. It produces specious results and wreaks havoc on limited school resources during the weeks and weeks the test is administered.”

Garfield’s civil yet disobedient faculty appears to be the first group of teachers nationally to defy district edicts concerning a standardized test, but the backlash against high-stakes testing has been percolating in other parts of the country.

  • The New York State Principals association recently issued a scathing letter, nearly four pages of “unintended negative consequences” it claims such tests foment.
  • In Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr has called for a three-year moratorium on standardized testing.
  • In north Texas last year, superintendents of several high-performing school districts signed a letter to state officials and lawmakers saying high-stakes standardized testing is “strangling our public schools.” As of Jan. 8, 880 districts that educate more than 4.4 million Texas students have adopted a resolution opposing these tests. 

“This high-stakes testing – there needs to be a moratorium on it, because it’s out of control,” says Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in Rockville Center, Long Island, N.Y. “None of these tests really have anything to do with curriculum. Maybe they have a little bit to do with math. But that’s it.”

Dr. Burris co-authored the letter for the New York State principals. On Dec. 31, she started a petition in New York opposing high-stakes testing. In 10 days, she says, 5,500 administrators, teachers, and parents have signed it.

“Parents are stressed. Teachers are stressed. Kids are stressed by these tests more than parents,” Burris says. “And when you tie teachers’ evaluations to these tests, the teachers end up focusing their lessons on the tests. And that’s starting to destroy elementary education.”

At Montgomery County Public Schools, America’s 17th largest district, Dr. Starr says the conflicting demands of the No Child Left Behind Act and the emerging Common Core State Standards Initiative (sanctioned by 46 states and the District of Columbia) are overwhelming districts, teachers, and resources.

“It’s not because I’m opposed to all standardized testing. Standardized tests do have a place,” he says. “But more and more folks are starting to recognize these standardized tests are not designed to do what we’re being asked to do with them. They’re a very narrow measure.”

Starr says many standardized tests detract from teachers’ ability to prepare students effectively: “This isn’t about saying, ‘Do away with all standardized testing.’ It’s about saying, ‘Do away with tests that are not aligned with what kids will actually need to do in the 21st century.’ ”

Starr’s words could well have been uttered here at Garfield.

“In 26 years of teaching,” says Kit McCormick, who teaches English, “this is the first time I’ve said, ‘I’m not giving this test.’ It’s not that I think my ninth-graders should not be tested. I want my ninth-graders to be tested. I teach to the Common Core standards, and I am happy to teach those standards. Bottom line is: The test is not useful to my students.”

Ms. McBride, the academic dean, said Garfield teachers “have a myriad of reasons for not administering the MAP test,” including “no evidence” the test is aligned with state and local curriculum, that it’s “filled with things that aren’t a part of the curriculum at all,” and that the district uses student test scores to grade teachers, even though the company that markets the test says it should not be used to assess teacher effectiveness.

“We really think our teachers are making the right decision,” said student body president Obadiah Stephens-Terry. “I know when I took the test, it didn’t seem relevant to what we were studying in class – and we have great classes here at Garfield. I know students who just go through the motions when taking the test, just did it as quickly as possible so they could do something more useful with their time.”

When someone asked the teachers if they were worried about what lessons students might take away from their collective defiance of the district, Mario Shauvette, chairman of the math department, stepped forward. “I’m teaching by example,” he said. “If I don’t step up now, who will? I’m taking charge of what I do here.”

On Friday, 25 teachers from Ballard High School, in northwest Seattle, signed a letter in support of the Garfield staff, listing many of the same complaints and saying they “support statements and actions of our colleagues at Garfield High School surrounding the MAP test. Specifically, the MAP test program throughout Seattle Public Schools ought to be shut down immediately. It has been and continues to be an embarrassing mistake. Continuing it even another day, let alone another month or year or decade, will not turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse.”

Officials from Seattle Public Schools noted that they agreed in November to look closer at all standardized testing policies, including the MAP test, and to report back to the school board this spring. “As part of this process, we will be inviting teachers and principals to attend meetings to discuss MAP testing,” says Lesley Rogers, the district’s communications officer. “We believe this is the appropriate venue to share concerns and to have an in-depth and productive discussion about the test.

“In the meantime,” she adds, “we expect our classroom teachers to fulfill their responsibilities and obligations to administer this test. If a teacher chooses not to administer the MAP test, we will evaluate the situation on a case-by-case basis.”

The teachers know they’re violating district policy, as well as their union contract. They realize consequences could be severe.

“But the people down at district headquarters are wise people, good people,” said history teacher Jesse Hagopian. “We all want what’s best for our students, and the faculty here is confident we can work together and come up with ways of evaluating our kids that are a lot more effective than this test.” 

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