“We are experiencing the largest ongoing revolt against high-stakes standardized testing in US history,” according to Jesse Hagopian, high school history teacher, education writer and editor of More Than a Score. This remarkable book introduces the educators, students, parents and others who make up the resistance movement pushing back against the corporate “testocracy.” Click here to order More Than a Score today by making a donation to Truthout!
The largest ongoing revolt against high-stakes testing in history is currently being waged by teachers, students, parents and administrators at schools across the United States.
Jesse Hagopian is part of it. A history teacher and the Black Student Union adviser at Garfield High School in Seattle, Hagopian and his colleagues made history in 2013, when they chose to boycott their region’s standardized test, the MAP.
“I think that we have to see this movement against high-stakes standardized testing as a civil rights movement.”
Administered via computer, the MAP test (which stands for Measures of Academic Progress), is given to some 3 million students across the United States and the world. When Garfield’s teachers and students boycotted the MAP, they faced threats from the superintendent of schools, but they had the support of their Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and local schools.
“To see students standing up for their own education … was a powerful moment,” Hagopian told the Laura Flanders Show recently.
Garfield’s boycott helped inspire acts of resistance across the nation, many of which are written up in More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, edited by Hagopian and published by Haymarket Press.
In this conversation, Hagopian describes what went into the Garfield boycott, the first resisters (who, he says, are the wealthy who send their kids elsewhere) and the origins of standardized testing in the eugenics movement of the early 1900s. He also imagines an education system fit for a more cooperative economy.
“I think that we have to see this movement against high-stakes standardized testing as a civil rights movement,” says Hagopian in this interview.
Watch Jesse Hagopian’s interview in full on The Laura Flanders Show, which airs at 9 pm Eastern and Pacific on KCET/LINKtv, (DIRECTV, ch. 375 & DISH Network ch. 9410); in English and Spanish on TeleSUR, or online, with comprehensive archives at GRITtv.org.
Laura Flanders: You call yourself a member of a movement of “test-defiers.”
Jesse Hagopian: That’s right.
Special spelling, tell us what you mean.
We’re a group that is refusing to give high-stakes standardized tests, refusing to take high-stakes standardized tests, opting our children out of these tests, and we’re up against the testocracy, what I call the corporate education reformers who are trying to reduce the intellectual process of teaching and learning to a single number that they can then use to punish teachers and students, deny our kids graduation, bust up the teachers’ unions, label the schools “failing” and then close them, like we’ve seen in Chicago or Philadelphia, with scores of schools closed.
What were the risks faced by your students, fellow teachers, even administrators there at [Garfield High School] as they considered this boycott in 2013?
When we took the vote to decide whether or not to refuse to give the MAP test, teachers right away asked me, “What are the consequences we’re going to face?” Everyone knew this test was not giving us useful feedback to drive instruction. They knew it was a waste of our teaching and learning time, but the question they had for me was what’s going to happen if we refuse, and I couldn’t sugarcoat it. I let them know. We have a progressive discipline policy, but especially if you’re in a tested subject, and you refuse to give [the test], you could be terminated.
For their kids? They want the arts. They want creativity and critical thinking taught in the classroom. But for our kids, they want this rote memorization.
In fact, when we announced that we were going to refuse to give this test, the superintendent issued a threat of a 10-day suspension without pay.
It was really the mass resistance of other schools joining the boycott; of our PTA voting unanimously to support our boycott; and the students themselves staging a sit-in in their classroom, refusing to get up and go to the library to take this computer-generated test, that kept us safe.
You wrote about it in the book. You are in a different room, and you’ve done all this organizing, and it comes to the question of, are the students going to walk to the library and take that test? Were you confident?
It was an incredible moment at Garfield High School because we knew the success of the boycott rested in the students’ hands at that point. Administrators were told by the superintendent they had to go door to door and pull kids out of class and march them off to the computer lab, and when students heard their name called out and refused to get up, or some of the students went to the lab but then they just hit the A key over and over again so the scores were invalidated because the test was done in 30 seconds, it was really the linchpin of the resistance, and to see students standing up for their own education to say, “I want to be in my teacher’s class right now and take a test that actually is aligned to my curriculum, take an exam that actually means something to what I’ve been learning,” was a powerful moment.
So why did they take those risks, those teachers, the students, the parents? George Bush is in favor of standardized testing, high-stakes testing. Barack Obama is in favor of it. What do you know that they don’t?
Well, they don’t actually send their kids to schools that use these exams. I’ve often said that actually, the MAP test boycott didn’t start at my school at Garfield High School; in fact, it began at Lakeside High School, a school down the road, where Bill Gates went, where he sends his kids, because they never administered the exam, and they wouldn’t do that to their own children, reduce teaching and learning to this score and teach to the test.
Instead, they have a system called performance-based assessment that is far superior to high-stakes standardized tests. It’s an incredible model which is much like when you get your PhD.
For their kids? They want the arts. They want creativity and critical thinking taught in the classroom. But for our kids, they want this rote memorization, and that contradiction I think is what led to the MAP test boycott. And the MAP test boycott helped inspire an entire country as we saw more boycotts break out in the wake of ours across the nation.
And yet Bill Gates has been very influential in pushing this testing regime.
Absolutely. I mean, he’s invested hundreds of millions of dollars, upwards of $200 million to implement the Common Core [curriculum] and the high-stakes test that are attached to it – the PARCC and Smarter Balanced [tests]. We’ve seen one man who uses his fortune and his wealth to manipulate and subvert the democratic process of education and to impose his will over the democratic will of the community.
Talk about what you want instead. You talked about testing or evaluating that is in line with the curriculum as one of the teachers’ goals. Sometimes critics of standardized tests are people who were against testing all together. What are you for?
Right. Absolutely. Teachers invented testing, and we’re not against assessment. We have to have ways to know how our students are doing. I’m actually here in New York to visit the [New York Performance Standards Consortium], which is an incredible group of some 28 schools across New York that have a waiver and don’t have to give the state standardized tests. Instead, they have a system called performance-based assessment that is far superior to high-stakes standardized tests. It’s an incredible model ,which is much like when you get your PhD. You do research over time. You develop a thesis. If your evidence doesn’t match your thesis, you have to revise your thesis. You work with a mentor, a teacher; collaborate with peers, and at the end of a period of time, you present your research and you defend your thesis much like a PhD candidate would defend their dissertation.
A major goal of the 1% in this country is to bust unions and to make America a low-wage economy that can compete with China.
These students at the New York Consortium Schools are doing this in every subject. I think the proof is that the New York Consortium Schools have higher graduation rates. They have their students of color performing and graduating at higher rates, going to college at higher rates, staying in college at higher rates, and the New York Consortium Schools have larger numbers of students who are at-risk and have special needs. If the corporate education reformers truly were about improving achievement for all students, they would be flying the principals of these New York Consortium Schools all over the nation to talk about why this assessment model and the inquiry-based classrooms that lead to it are creating such incredible outcomes for our students, but that’s not their goal at all.
Talk about goals. You referred to the corporate education reformers. Obviously, there’s a moneymaking piece in this. George Bush’s brother Neil was very invested in the company that was creating the test that that administration was pushing. But there’s another agenda here, too, that you allude to in the book.
I think there’s the people who directly want to profiteer from the selling of the test. That’s part of what’s driving it, but I think that there are larger goals at play here. One is that the teachers’ unions are the last major national unions, the biggest unions left in America. I think especially after the 2008 Great Recession, that a major goal of the 1% in this country is to bust unions and to make America a low-wage economy that can compete with China.
Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, if unions have been protecting bad teachers and their jobs . . . isn’t it time for a change? Don’t we need some changes?
Well, I would say that due process is a lot different than a job for a life – as that we’re often painted the teachers’ union movement with. I would also invite critics of the teachers’ unions to look at some important statistics. The South, large swaths of the South don’t have teachers’ unions. Are those schools outperforming the schools in the North?
This drive for high-stakes testing is about training an entire population that knowledge is the ability to eliminate wrong answer choices from a prescribed list of answers that are given by the elite.
Well, by the measures of test scores that the corporate reformers hold so dearly, no. Actually, the unionized schools are performing better on the test scores, which completely debunks their logic and exposes the real quest of the corporate reformer, which is I think to bust the teachers’ unions. Also, to label our schools failing so that they can privatize them, right?
If in Chicago, they label the schools failing, mostly in Black and Brown neighborhoods, and then they move the charter schools in and have private operators use public funds to run them.
The last part of what I think is behind this drive for high-stakes testing is about training an entire population that knowledge is the ability to eliminate wrong answer choices from a prescribed list of answers that are given by the elite. We want to reframe that and say that actually, knowledge and wisdom are about empowering students to solve the problems they face in the world today from myriad disasters that we face, from mass incarceration to climate change. These problems won’t be solved unless we can develop critical thinking and imagination skills in the classroom.
Where did these tests come from, historically speaking? IQ testing and what’s come since came in at a particular moment in history, particularly when it comes to race relations.
That’s absolutely right, and I think that’s an important history that lays bare the lies of the testocracy today. They say that these tests are about closing the achievement gap, but if you know that these tests actually enter the public schools in the early 1900s, tests that were developed out of IQ tests that were first used during World War I to separate the officers from the grunt soldiers, and then a man named Carl Brigham was one of the men who developed those IQ tests. He taught at Princeton University and then he developed the SAT test.
When we say that Black lives matter, we’re not just saying that young Black people shouldn’t be shot down in the street with impunity and no accountability for the police. We’re saying that we need culturally relevant curriculum.
Carl Brigham was an open eugenicist, a white supremacist whose whole premise of these tests were about ranking and sorting the races to prove that white men were smarter than women, were smarter than immigrants, were smarter than African-Americans. And now we see the same A, B, C, D bubble testing that was brought into the public schools by eugenicists. They’re claiming that these are going to be the tests that close the achievement gap, and I say that’s nonsense.
Talk about the future of this movement that you’re a part of. Many people involved in your struggles were also out in the streets in Seattle and elsewhere in the #BlackLivesMatter protests around policing. The stories in your book come from teachers and administrators and parents about what’s going on locally. There’s a world of trouble coming to this status quo I would say.
I hope you’re right. I think you are.
But how do you see it playing out and where do you see the connections?
Yeah. I think that we have to see this movement against high-stakes standardized testing as a civil rights movement, and I think that the people that are a part of this movement to end high-stakes standardized testing would do well to study the racist origins of this test and to make connections between these tests and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
There’s a recent study that came out of Boston University that shows the number one outcome of exit exams in high school to graduate is increased incarceration rates. We’re seeing the school-to-prison pipeline being built with these high-stakes tests, and so part of our movement must have an antiracist message. We need to say that when we say that Black lives matter, we’re not just saying that young Black people shouldn’t be shot down in the street with impunity and no accountability for the police. We’re saying that we need culturally relevant curriculum. We need a nurturing education system that’s fully funded and develops the capacity of all of our students, especially those who have have been historically discriminated against. I would say the #BlackLivesMatter movement would also do well to join in with this movement against high-stakes standardized testing and say that we want more for our students.
If you were going to redefine education or redesign it for a more group-oriented economy, how would it change?
It would look quite different. It would be about inquiry-based classrooms where students are asked open-ended questions, and they’re asked to bring in their experience, and they’re asked to do problem-based learning, where we discuss problems that we face in our society, and we look to the different disciplines to help address those problems. We would have interdisciplinary classes, so that if we wanted to tackle a problem like climate change, we could have courses designed where we integrate history of coal extraction and the Industrial Revolution together with science classes that look at issues around climate change and have a more holistic approach.
I didn’t know that you were going to say that, but it does sound an awful lot like what Bill Gates says Common Core is about.
Yeah. Except for he tells a lot of fibs, right? The problem is that he’s attached to the same old high-stakes standardized tests with the A,B,C,D answers to Common Core, which then drive the curriculum towards teaching kids how to eliminate wrong answer choices rather than solving problems we face in our communities. I think that we need to move towards a student-centered approach and listen to teachers and have teachers and educators be the ones driving education reform like we’re seeing with the Consortium Schools here in New York, like we’re seeing at my high school, where we rejected the test and are now moving to implement alternatives.
All right. Jesse Hagopian, thank you so much for coming. Good luck with the book