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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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