The Seattle Boycott Is Not About High-Stakes Testing, Except That It Is

By Ross Brenneman — February 08, 2013 5 min read
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Day 50. A cold, hard wind sweeps across Seattle. Resolve against testing remains strong.

OK, the testing boycott initiated at Seattle’s Garfield High School Dec. 21 isn’t quite that bad. Actually, the teachers’ campaign against the Measures of Academic Progress test appears to be doing moderately well. From the Seattle Times:

“Teachers who refuse to give the test will face some discipline, but [Seattle schools Superintendent José] Banda told them Monday that they will not be suspended for two weeks without pay, a punishment the district has given in the past to teachers who refused to give state-required exams.”

Deciding that the teachers wouldn’t back down (hey, this could be a movie!), Banda has ordered the principals of boycotting schools to proceed with administration of the Measures of Academic Progress test.

MAP is not a high-stakes test, it is a formative assessment. And the Seattle teachers insist their protest is only directed at MAP. But as noted in my article earlier this week, prominent individuals and groups in education have nevertheless seized on this boycott as a clarion call against such testing. Education Week‘s opinion bloggers are all over this protest. Wednesday was proclaimed by some to be a National Day of Action in support of the boycott.

Meanwhile, in full-on PR mode, the Northwest Evaluation Association, which created MAP, has released a statement on the “Myths and Truths” about the test. It reads as a line-by-line rebuttal of the Garfield teachers’ objections. Among some of NWEA’s points:

Computer-adaptive testing is unfair to students: “The beauty of the adaptive test is that children who might not know any test answers on a fixed form test will be able to answer what they do know on an adaptive test.”

Teachers don’t know what content MAP covers: “MAP is aligned to a state’s content standards that are published on each state education agency website. MAP measures progress to the standards. Each district has a curriculum that supports those standards.” The Garfield teachers cry foul on this, based on testimony by some of them that they’ve noticed questions out of sync with the curriculum. In reading over boycott coverage, and in my own talks with their main representatives, the most commonly cited incident is of geometry questions being posed to students who are still learning algebra. Teachers don’t actually receive a copy of the test, just the results, so it’s hard to know how much variance between the test and the standards truly exists, if any.

The use of MAP takes up too much important classroom time: “MAP was designed to complement and guide instruction, not compete with instructional time. A MAP test is about an hour and is typically administered two to three times per year.” That’s one hour per class, but it cumulatively amounts to a significant chunk of time, even with multiple computer labs.

Tests like MAP should not be used to evaluate teacher effectiveness: "[J]ust as we can agree that one exam is not the end-all, be-all measure of an individual student’s learning, we must also agree that one student test should also not be the only measure of whether a teacher is doing an effective job or not.” The MAP test doesn’t directly affect Garfield teachers’ evaluations. Rather, poor MAP scores can trigger an intense review of those teachers, which can ultimately end in negative evaluations, according to Garfield history teacher Jesse Hagopian. The teachers aren’t saying not to use tests in evaluations, but they want the tests to be valid. The NWEA clearly thinks the tests are valid, however. (That’s another one of the items on the myth sheet.)

Students just aren’t motivated to take the MAP assessment: “To increase motivation, many teachers explain to their students before testing the adaptive design of MAP (it’s not a pass/fail test), and how, together, they will use the score to set goals.” This one is basically the crux of the Garfield boycott: Because students don’t care about low-stakes exams, they don’t try. Because they don’t try, the results are useless in setting goals. And because they don’t try, those results shouldn’t have any effect on teacher evaluation.

In reading the fact sheet over, it’s readily apparent that many of the concerns about MAP translate to high-stakes tests, and potentially the forthcoming assessments tied to Common Core State Standards. For instance, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of the two consortia responsible for crafting common assessments, promises computer-adaptive tests. The SBAC also happens to be Washington’s consortium of choice on common-core matters. These tests may come on top of state tests that already take up a huge chunk of time. (Indeed, Washington has so many state tests that the state superintendent of public instruction announced yesterday that he’d like to cut back.) As for tying tests to teacher evaluation, well, here’s an Education Week primer on that (or as I like to call it, half of our archives.) The short version is that value-added teacher evaluation is going to happen with or without MAP.

As for student motivation, that can be a tricky issue no matter the stakes.

“As an educator, you would hope that people would be intrinsically motivated to learn and put their best foot forward,” said Julia Phelan, a senior research associate at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing. “And a lot of times, the bulk of the effort—obviously not for all students—is spent trying to figure out ways to game the system.”

As my colleague Jackie Zubrzycki wrote Tuesday, some Portland, Ore., students have initiated their own boycott of that state’s standardized accountability test, which is decidedly high-stakes, and a graduation requirement. Students there cite many of the same complaints that Garfield teachers use against MAP.

Garfield teachers can continue to claim they’re not protesting high-stakes exams, but several of their arguments may apply just as easily to all tests. That’s enough for the anti-high-stakes movement to seize upon; if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and tests like a duck, then it can be protested like a duck.

(Photo: Social studies teacher Jesse Hagopian, with his hand raised, and other Garfield High School teachers rally on Jan. 23 to protest the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test outside the Seattle School District Headquarters in Seattle. —Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times/AP)

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.