School Beat: Straight from Seattle--The Local and National Movement to Reimagine Testing and Public Education

by Lisa Schiff , 2013-02-21

Last night, local and national leaders and almost 500 concerned individuals joined together for a “Tele Town Hall” to discuss recent actions concerning standardized testing in our nation’s public schools. Jumping off from the dramatic and ongoing boycott of a particular assessment by teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School, Wednesday’s call, which was hosted by FairTest, brought into conversation Garfield teacher Jesse Hagopian, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) first-grade teacher Darcie Chan Blackburn, and Dr. Monty Neill, Executive Director of FairTest. I had the honor of moderating this discussion, which raised critical issues for all communities to be aware of and ended with a series of important actions that we can all take in order to push past the limits of these tests.

For those not following the Garfield High School story, in January the entire teaching staff of Garfield High School, supported by the school’s PTSA and by the Seattle Education Association, refused to administer a test called the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), based on serious flaws with the test that have been a longstanding source of concern by teachers and parents. MAP is a commercial testing product available for purchase by districts across the country, similar to the Common Learning Assessment (CLA) test used in San Francisco.

The problems with MAP (and CLA) are the familiar problems of most, perhaps all, of the standardized tests our children have been exposed to over the last decade or so. Frequently filled with errors, misaligned from curriculum, out of sync with standards, these tests have been successful at refocusing education on test-taking, thereby further narrowing an educational system already struggling to include “non-core” essentials like languages, music and art. Despite track records of cheating and financial ties to corporate foundations, people like Michelle Rhee are still able to spin sufficient heads to maintain momentum for such flawed approaches. Frustratingly, Rhee will be stopping in San Francisco today to tout her most recent monographic testament to her lucrative efforts to put more kids in oval fill-in-the blanks.

Assessing where students are at and enabling teachers to use that data to evaluate not only their students but their own teaching practices, is absolutely critical. Tests like MAP present the illusion that information is being collected that will enable such a reflection and dynamic responsiveness, but it just isn’t the case. We need assessments that are tied to what teachers are teaching, that provide triangulating evidence to compare to other evaluation tools (like grades) and that reduce problems of bias. Organizations like FairTest have been providing proven alternatives for years--they just aren’t the profitable products that major educational material companies like Pearson are interested in.

But, we may just be reaching a turning point. Five other Seattle schools have joined the Garfield boycott and support has been coming in from all parts of the country, including from the two national teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Last month, students in Providence, Rhode Island published a piece in a local paper discussing their state’s exit exam and how the energy and resources devoted to it are actually distracting the education community from addressing serious flaws in their educational system.

Among the many important pieces of information shared in last night’s call were two from Garfield teacher Jesse Hagopian. First, he report that out of about 800 students who were supposed to take the MAP test, just about 100 did--a huge victory for the teachers, parents and students. Second, the testing window is through this Friday, and the Seattle Superintendent has told teachers that if they do not issue MAP by Friday they may be suspended without pay for 10-days.

If these teachers are suspended, then their community--which is all of us--needs to stand behind them. They are taking a first hit for insisting that tests and assessments actually mean something, that the time taken away from instruction contribute to better instruction, and that the use of tests and other materials should not be driven by financial motivations. We can take a moment today and sign the petitions designed to let Seattle Superintendent José L. Banda know that we support the school’s boycott. We can also sign the FairTest National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing, which has been endorsed by an incredible number and diversity of organizations across the country. We can write more letters to the editor and show up at legislators’ offices, bringing our concerns about these tests right to their doorstep.

But signing petitions and writing letters can only be the beginning. In San Francisco, we are behind Seattle, and certainly behind Garfield High School. Our most important task is talking amongst each other--teachers having honest conversations with the themselves, their principals and parents about the tests and assessments they are supposed to administer and how well they are working or not; parents asking teachers about the tests their children are taking and how those tests are helping their teachers understand how to teach their children more effectively; parents talking with each other about the steps that we can take, including if and when to consider opting out of the California STAR test. Wednesday’s Tele Town Hall was just the first of many public conversations the San Francisco public education community should have about where we are with testing now and where we want to go.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco.