High-Stakes Testing & the Seattle Teachers' Boycott

Students learn about the Seattle teachers’ boycott of high-stakes tests and the larger testing issue, and consider a range of opinions about the effect of current high-stakes testing on teachers, students, and our education system. 

To The Teacher: 

This January, teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle decided to take a stand against the growing use of high-stakes standardized testing in public schools. The teachers refused to administer the state's "Measures of Academy Progress" (MAP) test, claiming that it does not align with the curriculum and is being used unfairly to evaluate teachers. Since announcing their boycott, the Garfield teachers' bold action has begun to catch on in other Seattle-area schools. The boycott has been endorsed by many area parents and students, and has gotten national support from the American Federation of Teachers, education researchers, and scholars.

The boycott has also served to renew debate over the place of high-stakes standardized testing in public schools. High-stakes testing has become an increasingly prominent issue in education policy since the advent of President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law in 2002. The Obama administration has promoted the tests as well, including by rewarding states that link scores to teacher evaluation.

This exercise is divided into two student readings. The first reading focuses on the Seattle teachers' boycott -- including background information about their actions, a review of the issues at stake, and a discussion of various responses. The second reading looks more generally at the state of high-stakes testing under the Obama administration. It considers the positions of both supporters and critics of high-stakes testing. Questions for student discussion follow each reading.

You may want to consider incorporating this 21-minute  video about the Garfield teachers' action, which was featured in a Washington Post column by Valerie Strauss.


Student Reading 1: 
Seattle Teachers Push Back Against Standardized Testing

This January, teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle decided to take a stand against the growing use of high-stakes standardized testing in public schools. The teachers refused to administer the state's "Measures of Academy Progress" (MAP) test, which millions of students across the country take every year. Teachers claim that the test does not align with the curriculum at their school and is being used unfairly to evaluate teachers. Despite a threat from Seattle School Superintendent José Banda that teachers would face sanctions if they did not administer the test by February 22, the protesting teachers at Garfield have held to their position. In fact, they have been joined by teachers from several other Seattle schools.
Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Garfield High School, laid out the teachers' rationale for boycotting the MAP test in a January 17, 2013 op-ed in the Seattle Times:

[O]ur district uses MAP scores in teacher evaluations, even though the MAP company recommends against using it to evaluate teacher effectiveness...
Former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson brought the MAP to Seattle at a cost of some $4 million while she was serving on the board of the company that sells it. The state auditor called this an ethics violation because she did not disclose it until after the district approved the company's contract. After Goodloe-Johnson was fired, the MAP somehow survived the housecleaning. Garfield teachers refuse to administer an ethics violation.
We at Garfield are not against accountability or demonstrating student progress. We do insist on a form of assessment relevant to what we're teaching in the classroom. Some of my colleagues would propose replacing the MAP with a test that is aligned to our curriculum.
Many others, myself included, believe that portfolios, which collect student work and demonstrate yearlong student growth, would be a good replacement for the MAP. Such assessments would be directly tied to our curriculum and would demonstrate improvement over time rather than a random snapshot of a student on one particular day. 

Many students at Garfield High School have lent support to their teachers' efforts. In a January 29, 2013, op-ed for the Seattle online newspaper, Crosscut.com, Garfield student Caitlin Chambers offered a student perspective on the MAP test:

This year, teachers are protesting the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test by refusing to administer it.
I agree with them...
The test wastes valuable class time, pulling 805 students out of class for 320 minutes each, according to statistics compiled by Garfield teachers. It also wastes $480,000 every year, money that could be put to far better use in the classroom for textbooks, lab supplies, and general class materials.
The MAP test monopolizes the entire library for testing days. Students aren't allowed in the area, which includes two computer labs and study space where students meet for clubs, print homework, and do research. 

For his part, Seattle School Superintendent José Banda defends the test as a legitimate means of identifying and providing extra help to students whose skills may be lagging behind. "Regardless of whether we think testing is good or bad, it's really about the children and making sure we are able to identify any potential gaps in their learning," he said. (Seattle Times)
Seattle Times columnist Lynne Varner further argues that, instead of protesting standardized testing, people should protesting the skills gap between minority students and white students that can form if problems are left undiagnosed.

I remain unconvinced the Garfield High School teachers' boycott of the Measures of Academic Progress test is anything more than adult hubris...
I'll give boycotters something to protest.
Let's start with dismal news that African-American, Latino and Native American elementary students still lag white students in core subjects, such as math and reading. We know this from results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test given to fourth- and eighth-graders across the nation...
If the skills gap is not addressed, attention toward picket lines will soon be directed toward growing unemployment lines.
Critics of the MAP and other standardized tests point out their cost. They aren't cheap. But neither is a poor education...
Protesting standardized tests is not so much wrong as it is misdirected.
The high cost of wasted educational opportunity is the bigger problem and far worthier of a rally or two. 

In the past month, the debate has moved beyond Seattle and taken on national proportions. Dennis Van Roekel, President of the National Education Association, wrote in support of the Garfield teachers in a February 6, 2013 article for The Huffington Post:

In boycotting a required test, the teachers at Garfield took a brave step, facing punishment that includes a 10-day suspension without pay... [A]dministrators and education officials nationwide are employing evaluation systems with little input from educators or teacher organizations...
If we really want systems that help all students reach their full potential, we must allow educators, parents, students and communities to be a part of the process and have a stronger voice in the conversations around high-quality assessments that really do support student learning.
Educators are fed up with flawed accountability measures, and the new face of teacher unionism has its eyes fixed on changing the current culture of standardized testing mania. In a dramatic way, Seattle teachers and others are driving the national conversation on professional issues and school reform. 

If actions like the Seattle boycott spread to schools in other parts of the country, they could have a significant impact on the shape of public education for years to come.


For Discussion:  

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. Why did Garfield High School teachers refuse to give the MAP test?
  3. What are some of the arguments that students who support the teachers make?
  4. How do Seattle School Superintendent José Banda and Seattle Times columnist Lynne Varner respond to the teachers? Why do they think the boycott is misguided?
  5. What do you think about the boycott? Do your experiences as a student give you any insight into the testing debate?
  6. Do you think that tests are a legitimate means of identifying students who may be lagging behind, or that they are overemphasized and consume too much class time? Explain your reasoning.


Student Reading 2: 
High-Stakes Testing in Obama Era

The Seattle teachers' boycott is a flashpoint in a wider national debate over the place of high-stakes standardized testing in America's schools. High-stakes testing has become an increasingly prominent issue in education policy since the advent of President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law in 2002. This law required state-run schools receiving federal funding to administer annual, publicly reported tests. The Obama administration has further promoted high-stakes testing, including by rewarding states that link scores to teacher evaluation.
Introduced by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan in July 2009, the administration's "Race to the Top" program ties federal funding for public schools to performance on high-stakes tests. And the results of these tests are used to evaluate the performance of teachers. As Josh Lederman of the Associated Press reported, "Race to the Top... set out to provide more than $4 billion in grants to states that undertook ambitious education reforms. Dozens of states changed laws, introduced new teacher evaluation programs and lifted caps on charter schools to qualify for a slice of the funds." 
One of the most outspoken critics of the "Race to the Top" policy is former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education and education scholar Diane Ravitch. In an August 1, 2010 article for the Huffington Post, Ravitch contended that testing under "Race to the Top" will have significant negative effects on education:

Evaluating teachers in relation to student test scores will have many adverse consequences. It will make the current standardized tests of basic skills more important than ever, and even more time and resources will be devoted to raising scores on these tests. The curriculum will be narrowed even more than under George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind, because of the link between wages and scores. There will be even less time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign language, even physical education. Teachers will teach to the test. There will be more cheating, more gaming the system. 

Although increased emphasis has been placed on standardized testing since No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, standardized tests in some form have been a reality for American students since the early 20th century. Tests were introduced to address the need for a uniform system to measure student achievement across wide geographical areas.
Defenders of standardized testing argue that the tests are beneficial to students and educators, offering them objective feedback on their grasp of the material and highlighting areas on which they need to focus. Herbert J. Walberg, an education expert for the libertarian think-tank the Hoover Institute, defended the practice of standardized testing in a May 20, 2011 article:

Students benefit directly when they take tests that offer information on how well they have mastered the material intended for learning. School reading and mathematics skills, for example, can be precisely specified and as students learn the skills, they benefit from ongoing information tailored to their specific individual progress...
Educators can better help students when they know how a student's objective performance compares with others. It helps both educators and students if students discover their strengths and weaknesses. For instance, performance information helps identify weaknesses that might be improved with tutoring and diligent study. Strengths revealed by standardized tests can help identify notable talents to be further developed in college study and in specialized vocations. 

To critics of high-stakes testing, however, Walberg's view represents more of the ideal than the reality of standardized testing. The truth, according to teacher, administrator, and author Marion Brady, is much murkier. In a November 1, 2011 article for the Washington Post's education blog, Brady wrote:

Teachers (at least the ones the public should hope their taxes are supporting) oppose the tests because they focus so narrowly on reading and math that the young are learning to hate reading, math, and school; because they measure only "low level" thinking processes; because they put the wrong people — test manufacturers — in charge of American education; because they allow pass-fail rates to be manipulated by officials for political purposes; because test items simplify and trivialize learning.
Teachers oppose the tests because they provide minimal to no useful feedback; are keyed to a deeply flawed curriculum adopted in 1893; lead to neglect of physical conditioning, music, art, and other, non-verbal ways of learning; unfairly advantage those who can afford test prep; hide problems created by margin-of-error computations in scoring; penalize test-takers who think in non-standard ways.
Teachers oppose the tests because they radically limit their ability to adapt to learner differences; encourage use of threats, bribes, and other extrinsic motivators; wrongly assume that what the young will need to know in the future is already known; emphasize minimum achievement to the neglect of maximum performance; create unreasonable pressures to cheat.
Teachers oppose the tests because they reduce teacher creativity and the appeal of teaching as a profession; are culturally biased; have no "success in life" predictive power; lead to the neglect of the best and worst students as resources are channeled to lift marginal kids above pass-fail "cut lines;" are open to massive scoring errors with life-changing consequences.
Teachers oppose the tests because they're at odds with deep-seated American values about individual differences and worth; undermine a fundamental democratic principle that those closest to and therefore most knowledgeable about problems are best positioned to deal with them; dump major public money into corporate coffers instead of classrooms. 

While they have been a facet of American education for nearly a century, never before have standardized tests been given such a central place in public policy about our schools. It's a good moment for teachers, students, and administrators to carefully examine and debate the value of these tests.
For Discussion:  

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" Act expanded the use of high-stakes testing. What has the Obama administration's policy on high-stakes testing been?
  3. Herbert Walberg, a defender of testing, argues that tests can help students objectively identify their academic strengths and weaknesses and compare their skills with other students. What do you think about this argument? Do you think that having a single standard for measurement across geographical areas is important?
  4. At the end of his list of reasons that teachers might oppose standardized tests, Marion Brady makes an argument that high-stakes tests are at odds with American democratic values. What does he mean by this? What do you think of this argument?
  5. Based on your own experiences with standardized tests in school, which positions in this debate most resonated with you? While politicians, administrators, and teachers are debating these questions, the voices of students are often left out. What perspectives do you think students can bring to the discussion that differ from those of other participants?
  6. What might you as a student, perhaps together with other students, do to make your views known on this issue?