US: Seattle teachers’ testing boycott

Teachers at Garfield High school in Seattle, Washington, faced down possible suspension for boycotting the winter Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, which purports to evaluate student progress in reading and maths.

The superintendent of the city’s public schools, Jose Banda, initially instructed the teachers to implement the test by 22 February or face ten days’ suspension without pay. The boycott began on 9 January when the 19-strong group of teachers at Garfield High voted unanimously to refuse to administer the test – the first time a group of teachers has boycotted a standardised test in the US.

Garfield High teachers published a letter pointing out how the MAP test, which is administered three times a year from first grade to 12th grade, disrupts students’ learning and is a costly and ineffective measure of student progress. It is used unfairly to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers, and to introduce a payment-by-results regime in education. Their letter concludes: “We are not troublemakers nor do we want to impede the high functioning of our school. We are professionals who care deeply about our students and cannot continue to participate in a practice that harms our school and our students”.

The American Federation of Teachers, the Seattle Education Association, and teachers from a number of Seattle schools voted to support the boycott, calling on Banda to abandon the tests. Many students at Garfield High have backed the boycott, which has been further strengthened by the support of the parents’ association, as well as by teachers, parents and academics across the country. Hundreds of students effectively have taken solidarity action by refusing to take the tests.

The boycott of the MAP test at Garfield High and other Seattle schools is part of the growing national fight-back against the high-stakes, public school testing regime that has swept through the US education system. In the past year, hundreds of school boards have passed resolutions calling for an end to the testing, stating that it is strangling learning. In New York, increasing numbers of parents are refusing to let their children sit the standardised tests. Many have criticised companies such as Pearson for profiteering from administering the tests.

Professor Diane Ravitch, a historian of education and former US assistant secretary of education (1991-93) under president George HW Bush, has signed a statement of support for the Seattle teachers along with 60 other leading education academics. In March 2010, in an article for the Wall Street Journal, she explained her opposition to standardised testing: “The current emphasis on accountability has created a punitive atmosphere in the schools. President Barack Obama’s administration seems to think that schools will improve if we fire teachers and close schools. They do not recognise that schools are often the anchor of their communities, representing values, traditions and ideals that have persevered across decades. They also fail to recognise that the best predictor of low academic performance is poverty – not bad teachers”.

The Chicago Teachers’ Union has launched a campaign, ‘Pencils Down’, to support local and national efforts to eliminate high-stakes standardised tests from public schools. In a paper, ‘Debunking the Myths of Standardized Testing’, it comments: “Children who do not have access to health care, who are hungry, who do not have books or access to other informal learning at home, whose parents have limited education, whose families are constantly stressed by economic problems, and who do not go to libraries and museums in their free time are at an academic disadvantage. These factors are highly related not only to testing outcomes, academic achievement, future education and socio-economic success, but also to the racial, ethnic and class origins of individuals”.

Education writer, Alfie Kohn, has noted how politicians and the education establishment are locked onto quick fixes, such as blaming teachers for low educational attainment among low-income and other disadvantaged children: “Many public officials, along with like-minded journalists and other observers, are apt to minimise the matter of resources and assume that everything deficient about education for poor and minority children can be remedied by more forceful demands that we ‘raise the bar’. The implication here would seem to be that teachers and students could be doing a better job but have, for some reason, chosen not to do so and need only be bribed or threatened into improvement… The focus among policymakers has been on standards of outcomes rather than standards of opportunity”.

High-stakes standardised testing is a major part of Obama’s education programme, ‘Race to the Top’. This gives city and state authorities the power to take punitive action against schools and individual teachers for poor student performance in standardised tests. It is worth noting that most private schools, where Obama and other public officials send their kids, do not administer such tests.

This ties in with the privatisation drive in public schools whereby ‘poorly performing’ schools can be closed and reopened with new staff, or converted into charter schools which are non-union and can be run by big private companies for profit. School budgets are being cut while multi-million-dollar contracts are given to companies such as Pearson to administer standardised tests.

The opposition to the MAP tests from teachers, students and parents – only 180 valid tests were delivered out of a planned 810 at Garfield High – forced Seattle education authorities to extend the winter testing deadline from 22 February to 1 March. Superintendent Banda was also forced to back down on suspending teachers, although he continued to threaten to label teachers as insubordinate and impose undefined ‘disciplinary actions’. To date, the Seattle education authorities have taken no action against teachers boycotting the MAP tests. Their determination to stand firm and continue the boycott, together with the support from parents, students and unions around the country, has helped stay Banda’s hand.

Kit McCormick, Garfield language arts teacher, said: “These threats of reprimand by the district have not threatened the resolve of the Garfield teachers, or teachers around the city who are boycotting the MAP test”. Garfield history teacher, Jesse Hagopian, added: “Teachers who are insubordinate against unfair tests are obedient to educational justice. If they follow through with these threats to teachers’ livelihoods, people around the world will rally to support Garfield”.

In Britain, politicians of all colours have embraced the ethos of the US model of education over the last two decades. They support the privatisation of education in the form of academies and free schools, share the same mania for testing children, and all choose to ignore the fact that social class and poverty are fundamental factors in shaping educational attainment.

Another idea from the US that the Con-Dem coalition government seems intent on introducing is performance-related pay for teachers, whereby pay is determined by students’ test scores and exam results. If a school’s results are poor, teachers face pay cuts and the possibility of their school being closed or forcibly turned into an academy. Instead, the emphasis needs to be shifted to providing a better quality of education for disadvantaged young people, and onto tackling child poverty and high rates of youth unemployment.

At the end of March, schools superintendent Banda wrote to teachers in Seattle saying that they would not face disciplinary action for the boycott action. It is a clear retreat. The boycott remains in place in the face of impending MAP tests in the spring.

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