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What You Need to Know About the Seattle Teachers’ Rebellion and the Deeply Flawed Test That Inspired It

Tests based on junk science have pushed Seattle’s teachers to the edge.

High school teachers in Seattle are saying no to the spread of high-stakes standardized tests. On January 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. For two weeks they’ve held firm, even as the superintendent of schools has threatened them with a 10-day unpaid suspension, and teachers at other 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 High history teacher Jesse Hagopian in a Seattle Times op-ed.

Garfield High’s Parent-Teacher-Student Association and the student government have issued statements backing the teachers, and their 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.”

The boycott has become national news and attracted support around the country; a letter in solidarity with the teachers has been signed by close to 5000 educators, authors, and activists including former US 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 and Pedro Noguera of New York University. The American Federation of Teachers posted a letter of support from president Randi Weingarten on its Facebook page.

Jean Anyon, professor of social and educational policy at the City University of New York Graduate Center and a supporter of the boycott, called what the Seattle teachers are doing “amazing.” “There have been very few groups that have decided to defy these tests,” she pointed out. “In terms of an outright boycott by a school, if it’s not the first it’s close to it.”

The tests, Anyon noted, are notoriously unreliable, with results varying from year to year and nearly impossible to replicate.

Ira Shor, professor of rhetoric and composition at CUNY Graduate Center, who writes on composition theory and urban education, commented, “The tests themselves are known as ‘junk science’ because of their pseudo-scientific basis in metrics while they notoriously 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.”

These tests, he explained, emerged around World War I as “intelligence” tests for the US Army. Public schools took them up at a time when dropout rates were high among working-class students and young people were “sorted” into tracks, pushing working-class students into vocational programs while the more elite students were tracked for more rigorous academic work. During the Cold War, students were tested more rigorously, but the ’60s and ’70s saw pushback from social movements on the way education was set up. But, Shor noted, for the last 40 years, there has been a strenuous public relations campaign pushing for more testing — more “accountability” to keep American students “competitive.”

“The long attack on public education and the public sector amounts to a culture war where the first prize is public opinion,” he said.

The MAP test is a particularly egregious example of the problems with standardized testing. It was acquired by the former Seattle Schools superintendent 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 not disclosing this fact when the school district spent about $4 million on the test. Ninth- and tenth-graders in Seattle already take five additional tests, required by the state, and 11th- and 12th-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 students are unlikely to take the test seriously, so educational time is being diverted for tests used simply to punish educators.

Additionally, the MAP is a computer-adaptive test (CAT), 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 can rush through the test quickly if they don’t care about their marks, while if they do work hard on the test they can wind up frustrated. “Students who…are sick of assessments find out quickly that if they choose random answers, the questions get easier,” writes assessment expert Jem Muldoon.

“Benefitting grandly from the sabotage of public education are various corporate forces,” Shor pointed out. “The deep pockets funding this war have been called ‘the billionaire boys’ club’ by Diane Ravitch—Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and assorted Wall Street scions in such groups as Democrats for Education Reform. Tests like MAP are corporate weapons to produce numbers ‘proving’ that public education has failed to educate our children and that it’s the teacher unions protecting mediocre teachers who are at fault.”

From the Seattle teachers to Chicago’s public schools to the Pathways curriculum at CUNY, Anyon said, “The union-bashing, attempts to control teachers, cut union power and control the workforce is all part of this neoliberal austerity ideology and practice…It’s a shrinkage of what is good and valuable [in the classroom] to what is deemed useful for the workforce.”

“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 now being used to get rid of teachers, to deny them tenure,” Michelle Fine, distinguished professor of social psychology, women’s studies, and urban education at CUNY Graduate Center, said. The tests tend to have a class and race bias, yet don’t serve as a good predictor of students’ performance in college the way, say, grade point average does. Even as more and more tests are being pushed on public school students, she noted, now a third of elite private universities are not relying on them for admissions. Elite students, in other words, are not being tested the way working-class students, many of them students of color, are, throwing more roadblocks in the way of those students’ access to higher education.

The Seattle teachers’ decision to refuse the test comes amid a growing backlash against standardized testing and other forms of education “reform” that come at the expense of educators’ freedom and judgment. “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 with little traction, in part because President Obama and [education secretary Arne] Duncan have really endorsed the overuse of high-stakes testing on students, on teachers and on schools,” Fine said.

The Chicago Teachers Union last fall made testing a cornerstone issue of its strike, and this April, United Opt Out is planning a four-day “Occupy the DOE” protest and teach-in outside the Department of Education in Washington DC. Anyon noted that New York parents have begun organizing against the tests, though Fine pointed out that many of the parents who can opt out are well-off, while working-class parents worry they’ll hurt their kids’ chances if they do.

The teachers have until February 22 before their threatened suspension would kick in. The superintendent 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.

Shor said, “Standing against the test as the Garfield HS teachers have done, following the September 2012 strike of Chicago teachers, needs to spread, and if it does, public education as a public good may yet be saved from corporate plunder.”

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