Educators, parents bring new urgency to fight against flawed standardized tests


By Amanda Litvinov

A few weeks ago, legislators in the Texas House of Representatives submitted a draft budget for 2014-15 that included exactly $0 for statewide standardized tests. Why? Because educators and parents had done the hard work of advocating for change on behalf of students.

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“To parents and educators concerned about excessive testing, the Texas House has heard you,” Speaker Joe Strauss stated.

Though a largely symbolic gesture—the Senate version marks $94 million for the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness—the move couldn’t be more meaningful. This is, after all, the land where the standardized testing movement was born. Where then-Gov. George W. Bush instituted a statewide testing regime that he would as president use as the model for the No Child Left Behind Law.

For over a decade now, self-proclaimed education reformers have promised that standardized tests would provide accountability through detailed information needed to improve student performance and close achievement gaps. But research has shown that not only has the focus on testing not moved the needle in improving student performance, but standardized tests not aligned with state standards or the district curriculum are all too often misused to make decisions about students’ futures and to attack educators and schools.

Educators know there are better ways to assess student progress and hold schools accountable. So do parents. In a rising tide of discontent, local protests are focusing national attention on the damaging effects of a cascade of high-stakes tests implemented over the past decade in the name of so-called reform.

There’s no better example than the Jan. 9 unanimous decision among teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle to boycott the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), a district-mandated standardized test that is aligned with neither the state standards nor the district curriculum.

Jesse Hagopian
Jesse Hagopian

“Students in 9th grade algebra often end up trying to answer questions about geometry, which they won’t get any instruction on until the next year, and that’s just setting our kids up to feel stupid,” said Garfield High School educator Jesse Hagopian, who teaches U.S. and world history. That makes it hard for students to take the test seriously, and since there’s no grade or graduation requirement attached, some race through to see who can finish the fastest.

“The problem is that this test is tied to teacher evaluation, so we’re being evaluated on student performance on skills other than those the state asks us to teach.”

And the list of problems with this deeply flawed test don’t stop there.

“The Special Education Advisory Committee for the Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools has declared that this test is a violation of the rights of special education students, so it is nothing short of a civil rights issue,” said Hagopian.

“If you have a test that is clearly violating the civil rights of students, as an ethical educator it’s your duty to stand up and raise your voice against it.”

District officials also admitted in a meeting with educators that the margin of error at the 9th grade level is so great as to make it statistically invalid—meaning the two-point gain students are expected to make each year falls within that margin of error, making conclusions about their progress questionable at best.

When the Seattle area educators boycotted administering the test last month—the Garfield teachers were joined by others at Orca K-8 School, Chief Sealth International High School, and The Center School—they had great support from parents, some of whom had been questioning the MAP test for years.

In the fall of 2009, Sue Peters’ five-year-old son went to the school library for the first time. But his kindergarten class wasn’t there to peruse the Dr. Seuss titles or learn how to check out books; they were seated in front of computers so they could take the MAP test.

Sue Peters
Sue Peters

“A group of us investigated and asked the district’s test administrators, “What is this test?”’ said Peters. “We found out it was going to be administered three times a year, even to kindergartners, even if your child doesn’t really know how to operate a computer or read full sentences yet. And this is in addition to other tests that they were going to give to the children in elementary school.”

Then Peters talked to other parents, teachers and librarians (who often administer the test in their district) and she discovered that the test was not useful for tracking student progress, and was taking away from valuable class time.

Peters first wrote about the issue for the Seattle Education Blog, which she co-founded with fellow parent Dora Taylor in response to the threat of closure of several well-functioning neighborhood schools. Soon, she would opt her kids out of the MAP test, which she says is an important option she wishes more parents understood.

“Parents are used to trusting that these tests are valuable to teachers and given for good reasons, but if you find out that’s not the case and that teachers are being forced to do things that aren’t even useful, then we need to stand up and advocate for them,” said Peters. “We as parents have a different relationship to the district so in some ways we’re freer to stand up and speak out.”

Peters, who co-founded Parents Across America in 2010, was one of many Seattle parents who spoke loudly in favor of the Garfield teachers.

“It’s critical that teachers work hand-in-hand with parents, because we really have the same interests,” said Hagopian. “We got into this profession to do what’s best for students, and that’s what the parents want. We’re natural allies.”

Jan. 23 Seattle rally
Jan. 23 Seattle rally

Parents, educators and other concerned community members showed their support at a rally event organized by the Seattle Education Association in support of the Garfield educators on Jan. 23. Arizona educator and NEA President Dennis Van Roekel called it a “defining moment.”

“If we want a system that is designed to help all students, we must allow educators, parents, students and communities to be a part of the process and have a stronger voice in this conversation as they demand high-quality assessments that support students learning,” said Van Roekel in a statement.

NEA is also one of the original organizational signers of the National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing. Individuals and organizations can sign on to ask state and federal policy makers to eliminate excessive testing and encourage multiple ways to assess students, teachers and schools.

Hagopian said the support from other educators across the country has also meant a lot, especially as he and colleagues face the possibility of 10 days’ suspension without pay, as the superintendent has stated.

“We’ve received gestures of solidarity from all over the country. I have scores of letters and emails. We received a pizza lunch sent to us from a school in Florida and flowers from a school in New Jersey, and chocolates from another district in Washington state. There has been overwhelming support.”

Find out how you can support the Seattle teachers, too.

Reader Comments

  1. The article at is an excellent once is an excellent one. Even better are the comments posted by reader Dr. Democracy.

    I would have posted this as a “reply,” but this page is poorly written (html code) and if a post is indented, the reply link doesn’t work. That being said, I would also love to reply to some of the people posting extraordinarily poorly-written posts and claiming to be teachers or to be standing up for teachers.

    Jesse posts: “Students and teacher need to freedom to teach and learn marketable and real world skill, learning how to pass a test or guess the answer is c is not useful, in addition if you need a multiple choice government written test to identify you students strengths and weaknesses you are an unengaged teacher that is out of touch with your students.” Cannot seem to distinguish between plural and singular nouns, refers to a person as “that,” AND has written a TRIPLE run-on. Please, stop. Just stop! You are NOT doing education any favors!

    1. Penny,
      sorry about the bad grammar, I did not realize that my post was supposed to be a formal essay that would be critiqued and graded, just thought I was sharing ideas with other professionals.Thank you for the public dressing down. I have sucessfully taught Physics for over 20 years and have a Masters Degree in education but I can assure you I will never share another idea publicly so you can consider yourself a success. If you treat your students with the same amount of disdain you did me I feel sorry for them. You are the type of teacher that causes students to shut down and stop working.

  2. I dare the so-called education committees to spend one month teaching where I do. I say one month because the kids would be out of the honey-moon period and into acting as themselves. I deal with parents who cannot help the students with their homework as they only had an 8th grade education themselves and parents who do not speak English and ones who blame me for their child’s failure. And yet, when I talk to the student, who has an X-box in his or her room and no supervision from the parent, who can blame them for focusing on fun rather than homework. When are we going to hold the parents and students accountable and not just the teachers? I see what testing does everyday in my classroom and none of it is positive. History is being ignored as it is not tested and that is a determent as it teaches critical thinking when done correctly. Kudos to those who stand up and fight the broken system. Yes, we as teachers are accountable to teach our kids, however, a test created by a broken system that does not acknowledge teacher imput is ridiculous. What are we doing to the next generation? Not creating people who want to teach, that’s for sure….

  3. It is incredible that we are slowly (or not so slowly) moving toward a National Set of items for students to know or some would call it curricula. I did not say abilities, or knowledge.

    I worry about the people who are designing the “need to know” items. I suggest they are no better able to predict the future than we could 30 years ago.

    Thirty years ago, who conceived of the technology we have today? Who could have predicted the needed skills for today, etc.?

    In addition, some test makers did not realize that their answer keys were wrong, in a few instances. Since teachers were not to know the questions or answers they went uncorrected for several rounds of testing. Hmmmmm…

    Our saving grace was that all high schools did not teach/stress the same things. Yes, most had the same minimal standards, as the world changed, we had some (but not all) adults prepared to take advantage of the changes and move our society forward. But, at least we had some prepared.

    Important? Why did not the countries with national curricula lead the development of our society the way as the U. S. has?

    We used to talk about the different learning styles and formats; today, we talk about the test score. I’m not sure what the score means (other than the number a student got counted correct.)

    I am sure there are tremendous gaps in the knowledge being tested. Example: The first round of goals, testing points, whatever the name was, did not include weather in high school for students in Nebraska. For those that don’t know it, Nebraska is part of tornado alley. We also have blizzards, drought, etc. So, we began to dump weather for more relevant material (that is, items on the test.)

    The English people are already saying they can’t meet their test items, so the other courses need to pick up their slack. Wonder if they are interested in picking up our slack? It is clear that the test makers for the different subject areas are not, effectively, talking to each other. Or, they think that the teachers can magically “do it all”. We can’t!

    We have states that are already backing away from evolution in biology, even though it is the backbone of biology. Global climate change still has some states and state boards of education sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting “la-la-la…”.

    What makes the experts think that all students should be able to analyze a sonnet or the deep meaning of “Catcher in the Rye”? Perhaps there are more important communication skills needed by all students. For some, these skills would be nice. For all?

    Would we like a national “minimum competency” test? Not a bad idea. It might be for a student to read at the 10th grade level, be able to do first year algebra, explain the role of the United State Supreme Court, etc. They could then tell us the percentage of students meeting the minimum competency. That might be useful and valid.

    Perhaps a true minimum competency test given, with out modifications or alterations, might actually tell us something. Otherwise, this is all a game. A game that will cost billions of dollars, over time, and will leave an educational system chasing numbers without meaning. It will leave millions of students in our society ill prepared for the future. It will distract our society from the real and necessary improvement we so desperately need.

  4. No Child Left Behind testing was chosen as a way to force you teachers to teach, instead of letting students chat away their hour in groups. (secondary English, retired)

  5. Test mania has to be stopped. Educators did not sign contracts which stated pay was connected to Test scores. All school districts and law makers are in breach of contract of that nationwide. Lawyers from local; state and national organizations should be sueing school districts; legislators and the FEDS for even attempting to attach pay rates or performance bonus pay to test scores. SECONDLY; Here is how far testing mania is OUT OF CONTROL. Virginia Beach thinks that Physical Education teachers should be held accountable for student fitness!
    That truly displays the IGNORANCE OF DECISION MAKERS. The two main factors determining fitness of anybody at any age are-diet and the amount of daily PERSONAL physical activity. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE for a Physical Education instructor to control those aspects of a person’s life unless it is their child at home. Schools lump 50-100+ plus kids into Physical Education classes to “fit the schedule” for one-two- maybe three-classes per week that last 30; 40; 50 minutes at best. Then some IDIOT that has spreadsheet mentality thinks humans will and should be physically fit because it is the teachers responsibilty. NEA and AFT should be in the Virginia Beach school board office saying stop this now before educators sue and have new precedent and power over tests like never before. However; this thinking does reflect the world we find ourselves in at this time 2013. If Johnny and Jane are inadequate at some “skill set” of life; lets find somebody to blame and hold accountable. Educators in SEATTLE, your brothers and sisters are behind you 100% and it is time for NEA/AFT to step up and educate decision makers to the flawed “blame game” and tell parents and students to accept responsibility for their lives; tell legislators to either fund and $upport education or shut up; and make it perfectly clear that CONSTRUCTIVISM by Jerome Bruner is how people learn Lifetime “skill sets” for a productive life. Either come to educational settings with an attitude to learn or accept the consequences of your “learned helplessness” and blame game mentality.

  6. In NC (a right to work state, btw), we have benchmarks that provide useful, targeted feedback that helps me assess not only my students’ strengths and weaknesses, but also my deficiencies as an instructor. The feedback is truly a gift.

    Additionally, we will be evaluated on three-year cycles (growth not met, meets growth, exceeds expected growth), with these evaluations counting as much as any other evaluation point, no more.

    Yes, research shows there are many variables, but the teacher is still the most influential. Teachers who growse about the students scores are some of the same to crow about “their scores”–as if they took the test. You can’t have it both ways.

    1. Students and teacher need to freedom to teach and learn marketable and real world skill, learning how to pass a test or guess the answer is c is not useful, in addition if you need a multiple choice government written test to identify you students strengths and weaknesses you are an unengaged teacher that is out of touch with your students. Standardized testing only takes time and resources away from the classroom teacher. A quality teacher is teh best device for focusing onf strengths and overcoming weakness of a students not a bunch of useless data from flawed test

    1. Some do just pass students on… not a good reason to go after every teacher as they were a bad teacher until proven good. (McCarthyism?). Every job (public and private) has ineffective employees. We’re never going to get rid of them entirely.

      It’s not that teachers don’t think they should be held accountable, we want to get rid of bad colleagues too! We just don’t think a single test that students aren’t invested in (doesn’t count on their grade) accurately measures learning and thus cannot be tool be accountability.

    2. Many try to retain students who are not ready to move, but their parents decline. Or decline testing to see if they have a learning disability because they are worried about special ed. The kid makes it to 4th or 5th grade woefully behind, and never catches up. And that’s the teacher’s fault? Be careful what you think about the “failing” students unless you have had one yourself. I’ve had sharp 6th graders fail the state math test because dad got sent back to prison right before it, or because their parents broke up right before it. The didn’t pass a test, but they were “sent on” because the teacher knew they knew the material. Lots of things happen, and they are not all about the teacher. Children are humans, not semiconductor chips that can be sent back if flawed. I have no control over my “raw materials” or what happens “outside the factory.”

    3. Students are rarely moved along by one teacher. Teachers generally work as a team with support staff (science, English, history, and math teachers work with guidance) determining what is best for the student. There are many studies that show retention does not necessarily have beneficial outcomes for students. Many school systems are eliminating special education classes in favor of inclusion mostly for budgetary reasons. Reducing class size would benefit students more than the money spent on standardized tests. Standardized tests do not measure gains made by a student they measure what the student does not know. I began working as a teacher in a wealthy suburb. Students came to class fully prepared. If there was any inclination that the student was falling behind the parents immediately sought private tutors to intervene. Most of the students in urban areas do not have this luxury. These gross economic inequalities have a greater impact on student achievement than the teachers. If suburban teachers switched jobs with urban teachers–the test scores would not change. Attacking teachers will not change anything. It will destroy the teacher’s unions where they exist and create teachers who are low paid workers without job security. Looking at states with the highest overall test scores are the states that have teacher’s unions—many of the lowest performing schools are in states that spend the lowest amount on education per pupil. Many of the decisions that create the environment that teachers must teach in are not in the teacher’s hands–it makes little sense to blame the teachers and ultimately will do nothing to change the performance of students.

    4. Yes, we as teachers need to held accountable, but then that is why we need to be able to have the results back from these tests in a timely manner so we can restructure our instruction to meet students needs. The tests need to be aligned to the standards that we are expected to teach – not next year’s course work. I want to make sure that I have time to teach my students problem solving, team work, and excellent communication skills – many skills that cannot be assessed by a multiple choice test.

  7. The testing craze still begs several questions. Why are we so preoccupied with outcomes and accountability? Why are we so concerned with measuring achievement? What is achievement? What about process? When I started teaching in the early 90’s, I would have never thought it would have come to this! As classroom teachers, we have to stand up and say “no more!”

    1. I totally concur! We need to maintain a balance and it is now the job of teachers to show how the balance can be attained. It is time for us to say “No, More” and as we say this we also in this evidence based society show how the process of education is allowing students to feel successful and offers time to learn at their own speed, not the speed expected by others.

  8. I agree with the idea that standardized tests are being overly used…I have to admit that I am more in favor of the MAP test that state CRT’s as a guide for teacher instruction. No assessment is 100% accurate due to many, many factors, but the MAP test adjusts as the student takes it leading to a more accurate measure of what the student knows and what they need work on. If a student gets an answer correct it then gives more difficult questions (yes, this can be inaccurate due to student guessing, but a step in the right direction). These more difficult questions help teachers know how to challenge higher achieving students that often get neglected in the paniced focus teacher must have on struggling students. If the student misses a question the test adjusts to the students level as well, giving the teacher information on what that student needs to work on and where they are proficient. No test is going to be perfect, but in our nation right now, there is a focus on research based assessments that we as teachers have to use to “prove” (what we know as good teachers from informal assessments) that a student is successful or not. I do not agree with all the information and teacher and student performance being based solely on these formal assessments, but see some use to them.

  9. Please think before you try to stop these tests. There are testing companies making millions of dollars from this annual requirement. Do you really want to take this money away from them and put it back in the classroom where it is truly needed? Think of the business people who will suffer and need to consider scaling back on their Mercedes and $500,000 plus homes. Please get your priorities straight!

    1. I feel your pain Ima. How horrible it would be for all those education “experts” to have deal with real students and not just scanners sheets and data!!!

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