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Garfield teachers boycott standardized test

A corruption scandal and validity at heart of refusal to administer MAP

The news was every kid’s dreams. In a unanimous decision the teachers at Garfield elementary in Seattle—whose alumni include Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee, and Debbi Armstrong—voted to boycott the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. The decision was historic. Test boycotts have been organized by students, and in some cases test companies have even been sued by disgruntle parents for test malpractice, but the action by the Garfield teachers is a first. Parents can be ignored, individual students can be suspended, an entire class can be failed, but a school district cannot fire their teachers en masse without shutting down the whole school.

While the teachers’ actions may seem extreme, the grounds that they give for refusing to administer the test are fairly narrow. The MAP test was brought to the Seattle School District by former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson as part of $4 million contract with Northwest Evaluation Association. At the same time that this deal was being negotiated Goodloe-Johnson was sitting on the board of Northwest Evaluation Association. Essentially, Goodloe-Johnson was covertly sitting on both ends of the negotiation table while hammering out the details of a multimillion dollar contract that would benefit her personally. An investigation by the state auditor found Goodle-Johnson guilty of ethics violations for not disclosing her conflict of interests, and she was fired from her job as superintendent soon after.  Miraculously enough the contract with Northwest Evaluation Association managed to survive. When the teachers at Garfield refused to administer the test they did so on the grounds that the School District has failed to do its job by voiding the contract with Northwest Evaluation Association; they cannot—and should not—be expected to carry through with a test whose entire existence is the result of a known scandal.

The issue of corruption is the main leg that the teachers at Garfield can stand on, but the broader issues of workers’ rights and the need for educational reform have also come to light. Despite the fact that Northwest Evaluation Association explicitly advises extreme caution when using students’ test results as a tool for evaluating teachers, the Seattle School District has done so anyway. In addition, not only are there are many intrinsic barriers to taking the test for students—including language, the fact that the test is five hours long, and concerns that the test is directed at the appropriate grade level—but the entire MAP process is riddled with hurdles that negatively affect both students and teachers. Teachers are not allowed to see the content of the test, meaning that they are largely left in the dark of how to prepare their students for it. The test also has no direct impact on a student’s grade or graduation status, and because of this many students do not take the test seriously. Even the Seattle Public School staff has admitted that the test is not valid at the high school level because the margin of error within the test is greater than the expected gains. Naturally, the teachers at Garfield see this as unfair and their union—the Seattle Education Association—has come out in support of them.

Perhaps the biggest complaint about the MAP test though, is that it takes valuable time away from important school activities and by doing so it hurts kids who are already at a disadvantage. The MAP—which is done in front of a computer screen—monopolizes the school’s computer lab. This prevents students, especially those too poor to have access to a computer at home, from being able to do research and work on writing. Also, students who receive extra help are often targets for the MAP test. Spending time on the test means less time for instructions and tutoring. According to a statement released by the teachers at Garfield ,if they were to participate in the MAP test this year, they would be forced to take 805 students out of class during 112 class periods. This would amount to a loss of 320 minutes of instructional time over 5 hours of class time per student. The irony could not be thicker. A test titled Measures of Academic Progress has become one of the main reasons as to why some students in the Seattle School District are having so much difficulty progressing. If there is a subject that students could advance in because of the MAP test its Eastern European literature; the test process is filled with so many unnecessary barriers and illogical decisions that it becomes an excellent lesson in Kafka-like absurdity.

Will the teachers at Garfield be successful in convincing the School District to drop the MAP test? At this point it is hard to say. For now the Seattle Schools Superintendent José Banda has responded to the teachers’ action with hostility. Shortly after the boycott was announced Banda sent a memo to all staff defending the MAP test and reminding principals that they had to make sure that all tests were completed by February 22. Soon after, he warned that if teachers failed to administer the test they could be suspended up to ten days without pay. Banda appears resilient, but his ability to force Seattle teachers to administer MAP is clearly waning. The Garfield teachers have gained national attention for their cause. US Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, educator and author Jonathan Kozol, and social critic and linguist Noam Chomsky have all signed onto a letter supporting the MAP boycott. More importantly, the boycott is spreading. Teachers at ORCA K-8 and Salmon Bay’s Elementary School have voted to join the boycott, while teachers at Franklin High School, Ballard High School, and West Seattle High School have expressed their support. No matter how the boycott ends, the Garfield teachers have pulled back the curtain on the culture of standardized testing that has engulfed our schools, and in doing so have shown that it deserves a “F” grade for failing our teachers, students, and communities.

Marco Rosaire Rossi is a graduate of the University for Peace in Costa Rica and a resident of Olympia.

Photo courtesy of MAP Boycott Solidarity

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