Teaching Profession Opinion

Mapping a Teacher Boycott in Seattle

By Noah Zeichner — January 10, 2014 14 min read
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On a Wednesday afternoon in January, a colleague asked if I had heard the news: Teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle, Wash., had unanimously voted to refuse to administer the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. The MAP boycott spread to seven more Seattle schools, including the Seattle high school where I teach, and teachers at 10 more schools had signed statements of support.

Superintendent Jose Banda initially threatened disciplinary action for insubordination if teachers refused to give the test, but district officials later backed away from that. In the meantime, the boycott attracted national attention in the education press and beyond, with even Michelle Rhee weighing in with her thoughts about the Garfield teachers. Letters, donations, and even pizza poured in from around the country for the Garfield staff.

By May, things had settled down a bit, and Banda said high schools would not have to administer the MAP test after the spring 2013 testing window. But schools that opt out this fall must provide an alternate method of measuring the progress of struggling students. However, the MAP test will still be mandatory at elementary and middle schools in Seattle.

The MAP boycott at Garfield was no ordinary case of teacher advocacy. The boycott bubbled up at a school with a long history of social activism. Two years earlier, hundreds of Garfield students walked out to protest cuts in education funding and to support a teacher, Jesse Hagopian, who was arrested during those protests.

And the test itself already had been controversial in Seattle. The exam was introduced in Seattle Public Schools in the 2009-10 school year during the tenure of the late Maria Goodloe-Johnson while she served on the board of the Northwest Evaluation Association that developed and sells the test. Since then, Seattle has administered the exam three times a year to all students in kindergarten through 9th grade. It measures student growth over one academic year.

Set against this backdrop, however, several factors contributed to the success and uniqueness of the Seattle MAP boycott. They include:

1. A unified, grassroots effort started by and led by teachers;

2. Close collaboration with parents and students;

3. Advocacy based on research and grounded in the expertise of classroom teachers; and

4. A solutions-oriented approach.

A Unified, Teacher-Led Effort

The Seattle MAP boycott was truly a grassroots effort. No advocacy organization drove the organizing. The local teachers union supported the boycott, but didn’t initiate the action. Teachers organized themselves and advocated for a policy change that they believed was necessary.

Boycotting teachers articulated several objections to the MAP test:

• Teachers weren’t allowed to see the contents of the test and were concerned that many aspects of the test were not aligned with curriculum standards.

• Time spent administering the test took away from classroom instruction and limited access to the school’s computer labs.

• Lost instructional time was especially harmful to students who needed the most support, including English language learners and students enrolled in special education classes.

• The margin of error for the high school exams was higher than expected one-year gains for high school students, raising serious questions about the test’s validity.

• The MAP test was not designed to be used in evaluating teachers, but the 2010 contract negotiated by the district and the Seattle Education Association (SEA) required that reading and math teachers receive ratings based on student growth as measured by MAP and other standardized tests.

The Garfield High School action began when one teacher, Mallory Clarke, decided to refuse to administer the test. She spoke with colleagues, and they agreed with her objections. Teachers started organizing and spoke with other math and language arts teachers before calling an all-staff meeting to request support from the entire faculty. After a lively discussion, the staff voted unanimously in January to boycott the MAP test.

The school’s academic dean and testing coordinator was one of the most vocal opponents of the test, which added even more credibility to the case against it. Language arts and math teachers took a big risk by refusing to administer the test, and their colleagues who taught nontested subjects understood the benefits of a unified action. As one Garfield social studies teacher described his reaction to the meeting, “It was an easy sell for the rest of us.”

Although Seattle teachers launched the boycott initially without union involvement, Seattle Education Association (SEA) leadership has encouraged their actions. SEA president Jonathan Knapp commends the Garfield High teachers for conceiving and organizing the boycott. He sees the action as an ex-citing example of teacher advocacy in part because “educators have at last begun to realize that no one is going to ride to our rescue and set right all of the wrongs that have been perpetrated upon educators and public education.”

Collaboration With Parents and Students

A unified voice of teachers, students, and parents strengthened the teachers’ position with district leadership and community members. After the boycott announcement, teacher organizers at Garfield worked with parent and student leaders to secure unanimous votes of support from both the Parent-Teacher-Student Association (PTSA) and the Associated Student Body. Reflecting on the boycott months later, Garfield teacher Jesse Hagopian believes that “without any one of those groups fully working together, we would have lost. With this in mind, I would have had discussions with the PTSA at Garfield about our boycott in more depth before we launched it.”

Teachers at other participating schools also reached out to parents. At Chief Sealth International High School, 9th-grade language arts teacher Heather Griffin wrote a letter to parents that included pros and cons of the MAP test. She wrote the letter “to ensure my students made a smart decision with their families involved about whether or not they should take the test. I felt like if they did take it, they needed to take it seriously, and that would be more likely if was a family-driven decision made with some helpful information.”

In her letter, Griffin offered three choices for students and their families:

1. Go to the computer lab and take the test.

2. Go to the computer lab and take the test, but don’t take it seriously.

3. Remain in the classroom and work on the current unit without taking the test.

According to Griffin, response to her letter was very positive. “I was asked to share it with staff and the PTSA, and to have it added to the web site. Many of my students’ parents thanked me, and several members of the PTSA were appreciative. I tried to answer all questions with multiple perspectives as far as I was able.”

But it wasn’t just high school teachers who reached out to parents. In a nearby school district, kindergarten teacher Lindsey Durant watched the boycott develop. She initiated an email exchange with her students’ parents about the MAP test. She wrote:

As you may have seen on the news, Garfield High School teachers voted unanimously to refuse to administer the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment to their students . . . As your child progresses through the public school system, he/she will take many high-stakes tests. Some of these tests do provide teachers with valuable data on student strengths and needs, while others do not. I urge you to become informed about the various assessments our district uses. I would also ask that you begin to share your thinking by engaging in discussion with your friends and neighbors about the current testing climate.

Very quickly, Durant received several thoughtful responses from parents. Some expressed support for the teachers involved in the Seattle boycott. “I’m extremely pleased the teachers stood their ground! I’m supportive of testing, but always with the proper tools for both the students and their teachers,” said one parent.

Others thanked Durant for engaging them in a genuine conversation. “It is great that you gave parents this information and encouraged awareness and participation, rather than trying to sway them in one direction,” said another parent.

Reflecting on the email exchange, Durant said, “I was pleasantly surprised that so many of my students’ parents were eagerly supportive of the teachers boycotting the MAP. Although their children are only in kindergarten, these parents understood how testing can go wrong. Parents trust teacher expertise. It was refreshing to be reminded of this when my students’ families eagerly responded to the news of the MAP boycott.”

Research and Teacher Expertise

In response to the boycott, the district formed the Task Force on Assessments and Measuring Progress to review the use of the MAP test. But teachers were not satisfied with their representation on the task force (5 of 30 members were practicing teachers), which led them to form a separate group, the Teacher Work Group on Assessment. More than 20 teachers, some directly involved in the boycott and some who weren’t, met regularly to develop recommendations for the district.

Work Group members considered research on assessment policy, reviewing Kappan articles about local assessments in Nebraska’s School-based, Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System (STAR) program and on New York’s Performance Standards Consortium. They also referenced work by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education on using performance assessments. They studied international perspectives on assessing students from Finland and Singapore.

In addition to formal research, the Work Group drew from the expertise of classroom teachers to formulate their recommendations. Experienced teachers, like David Katz, language arts chair at Chief Sealth International High School, had studied the impact of the MAP test for a few years leading up to the boycott. According to Katz, “to use the MAP test accurately requires additional weeks of one-on-one goal-setting conferences with students. The net effect is to make MAP the single most important element of the curricular year in math and language arts. As a result, teachers do not use the MAP as intended.” Katz also said, “the large and erratic swings in student performance from one testing period to another led me to conclude that the results weren’t valid.”

The district task force’s final report to the superintendent on May 9 recommended discontinuing the required use of the MAP test in high schools. But the report suggested that the MAP test could be a useful tool for assessing student growth in grades K-8 when teachers are properly trained to use the data. The report did not address the role of MAP scores in teacher evaluation.

Solutions-Oriented Approach

Unlike the district task force, the Teacher Work Group on Assessment called for a complete halt of the MAP test in all Seattle Public Schools. From the beginning of the boycott, teacher organizers emphasized that they didn’t oppose assessment or account-ability. But they said the MAP test was an inappropriate and irrelevant student assessment. The Teacher Work Group’s report articulated a vision for how student progress could be measured without using the MAP test.

The Teacher Work Group emphasized using performance tasks in their recommendation to district leadership. Specifically, they called for assessments that:

• Include classroom work;

• Allow teacher and student choice;

• Integrate with curriculum;

• Reflect actual knowledge and learning, not test-taking skills;

• Are educational in and of themselves; and

• Have tasks that reflect real-world thinking and abilities.

In addition, they recommended that alternatives to the MAP test:

• Demonstrate student growth as well as standards achievement;

• Are free of gender, class, and racial bias;

• Are differentiated to meet student needs;

• Allow opportunity to go back and improve;

• Include community input;

• Undergo regular evaluation and revision by educators; and

• Are graded by teachers collaboratively.

The Teacher Work Group did not propose specific tests or performance tasks, but did make recommendations about how to develop the new assessments. Among their suggestions:

• Groups of teachers, organized by departments, grade levels, or schools, should meet regularly to “develop, critique, adjust, and evaluate” new assessments.

• The district and teacher leaders can create time during the school day for this work by setting up common planning time and using substitutes to release teachers when needed.

• The money currently used for the MAP test could be spent on the research and development of assessments that meet the criteria for quality assessments.

Seattle high school teachers met throughout the summer to develop plans for alternatives to the MAP test. According to a May 10 memo from Superintendent Banda, a school that wants to opt out of the test must “submit a plan that specifies how they will assess and monitor the progress of students below standard in math or reading.” At the time of publication, it was unclear if any high schools had submitted a plan to district officials.

Boycott organizers have hinted that they will continue the fight to eliminate the MAP test from K-8 schools this fall. They also have plans to hold a public debate with representatives from the Northwest Evaluation Association, the Portland-based company that created and sells the MAP test.

Overcoming Resistance to Teacher Advocacy

Seattle teachers involved in the MAP boycott did not carry out their campaign without meeting resistance along the way.

Early on, Superintendent Banda told teachers they would face disciplinary action if they refused to administer the MAP test. After meeting with teachers on Garfield’s boycott organizing committee, the school district decided against issuing suspensions or other consequences for insubordination.

During the boycott, the Seattle Times published editorials opposing teachers’ actions, including a piece by former Washington, D.C., school chancellor Michelle Rhee. “Instead of a national conversation over how best to serve our kids, Seattle boycotters are using a routine learning assessment to spark a debate over standardized tests and teacher evaluations. In doing so, the debate over the nuts and bolts of the MAP robs the public of a much more meaningful dialogue about how to ensure a high-quality education for every American student,” she wrote.

Boycott organizers countered Rhee’s rhetoric with op-eds of their own that clarified their rationale. In a piece published in the Seattle Times in early June, Jesse Hagopian, along with Liza Campbell, a high school teacher and coauthor of the Teacher Work Group on Assessment’s recommendations, wrote, “The work group on assessment concluded that quality assessments, at their base, must integrate with classroom curriculum, measure student growth toward standards achievement, and take the form of performance tasks.” They argued that performance tasks were an appropriate replacement for the MAP because “they grow from classroom work, are rigorously evaluated and respect true learning. Such an assessment system moves away from the notion of high-stakes testing and toward one of high-value learning.”

Looking Forward

Months after the boycott began, local and national mainstream media continue to draw attention to the boycott’s success. Seattle magazine, in its August 2013 issue, featured a story entitled “How Garfield High Defeated the MAP Test.” And Morgan Spurlock’s CNN show “Inside Man” sent a film crew to Seattle to gather footage for a July episode that focused on education in America.

The news media spread the story of the Seattle MAP boycott around the country and even the world. Social media has played its part, too. Throughout the spring, thousands of supporters followed the play-by-play development of events in Seattle on Facebook and Twitter.

For teachers who are passionate about the role of testing or any other education policy issue, studying successful examples of teacher advocacy can generate new ideas and can create a sense of solidarity with other teachers. Following blogs and teacher organizations on social media is a great start. Joining a virtual network of teacher leaders can be another exciting way to connect with powerful examples of teacher advocacy. Networks such as the Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory can provide a safe space for sharing ideas about pedagogy and policy with teachers from across the country.

Many teachers have looked to the Seattle MAP boycott as a source of inspiration. Seattle teachers took bold action in an effort to advocate for what they believed was in the best interest of students. In solidarity with parents and students, they offered an alternate vision of student assessment, drawing from research and from their own classroom expertise. Eyes will be on Seattle high schools this fall to see if they opt out of MAP testing. And we will all be watching teacher leaders around the country who apply lessons from Seattle to their own advocacy efforts.

All articles published in Phi Delta Kappan are protected by copyright. For permission to use or reproduce Kappan articles, please e-mail kappan@pdkintl.org.


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