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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.
 
 
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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.