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Seattle Teachers Boycotted Standardized Testing — and Sparked a Nationwide Movement

Parents, students, and teachers all over the country have joined the revolt to liberate our kids from a test-obsessed education system.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Artifan via Shutterstock.com

 

Life felt eerie for teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High in the days following their unanimous declaration of rebellion last winter against standardized testing. Their historic press conference, held on a Thursday, had captured the attention of national TV and print media. But by midday Monday, they still hadn’t heard a word from their own school district’s leadership.

Then an email from Superintendent José Banda hit their in-boxes. Compared with a starker threat issued a week later, with warnings of 10-day unpaid suspensions, this note was softly worded. But its message was clear: a teacher boycott of the district’s most-hated test—the MAP, short for Measures of Academic Progress—was intolerable.

Jittery teachers had little time to digest the implications before the lunch bell sounded, accompanied by an announcement over the intercom: a Florida teacher had ordered them a stack of hot pizzas, as a gesture of solidarity.

“It was a powerful moment,” said history teacher Jesse Hagopian, a boycott leader. “That’s when we realized this wasn’t just a fight at Garfield; this was something going on across the nation. If we back down, we’re not just backing away from a fight for us. It’s something that educators all over see as their struggle too. I think a lot of teachers steeled their resolve, that we had to continue.”

Parents, students, and teachers all over the country soon would join the “Education Spring” revolt. As the number of government-mandated tests multiplies, anger is mounting over wasted school hours, “teaching to the test,” a shrinking focus on the arts, demoralized students, and perceptions that teachers are being unjustly blamed for deeply rooted socioeconomic problems.

“You’re seeing a tremendous backlash,” said Carol Burris, award-winning principal of South Side High School in New York City and an education blogger for The Washington Post . “People are on overload. They are angry at the way data and testing are being used to disrupt education.”

Last spring, New York became the first major state to implement Common Core State Standards testing, a key element of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative. Burris has compiled data showing a dramatic increase in the time children and teens spend taking New York state tests. Fifth-graders are the hardest-hit, with testing time ballooning from 170 minutes in 2010 to 540 minutes in 2013.

Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University in New York City, estimates that parents of about 10,000 students across the state joined the “opt-out” movement in April, refusing to submit their youth to Common Core tests. “Probably the largest test revolt in modern American history,” he said.

Inspired by New York’s grassroots revolution, Naison co-founded the Badass Teachers Association (BAT), which by mid-January had 36,443 members and chapters in all 50 states. Florida has the largest representation, with more than 1,575 BAT teachers.

“It takes a lot of courage to speak out. This group says, ‘You’re not alone.’ If we stand up for one another, we can speak back,” Naison said. “We have brilliant people who know how to create websites, fan pages, a YouTube channel. We’ve got this amazingly flexible organization.”

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave the opt-out movement a public-relations gift in November, when he labeled the emerging bloc of mainstream opponents to Common Core testing “white suburban moms who—all of a sudden—their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

Duncan previously had blamed Tea Party extremists for Common Core’s bad rap. And indeed, conservative Republicans are among the program’s greatest critics. They see an alarming federal usurpation of control over local schools and are deeply suspicious of standardized curriculum requirements that they fear promote a liberal agenda.