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Boycott Time: Are Our Kids Overdosing on Tests?

Published on: February 22, 2013

computer test at high schoolIs the answer to local testing concerns another test?

Washington state has seen a number of tests over the years, from the WASL to the MSP and HSPE, with pressures to meet AYP because of NCLB. There’s the DRE and the EOCs and in some schools (as we know all too well now) the MAP. And don’t forget the AP, the ACT and the SAT (or, perhaps, GED).

Next up, they say, is the CCSS. (One state think tank wants to scrap it all and go back to the ITBS.)

It’s enough to make a parent say WTF.

Between our zeal for leaving no child behind and racing to the top of the educational ladder, have we lost perspective on what real learning looks like?

A protest by Seattle Public Schools teachers against the district-mandated Measurements of Academic Progress (MAP) tests has sparked a national debate about our testing culture.

Though the MAP test is not considered high-stakes — and it differs greatly from the standardized state tests that are under the greatest scrutiny — its rejection at Seattle's Garfield High School has served as a clarion call for teachers, parents and students fed up with filling in bubbles.

“It’s teaching kids that the answers to life’s problems are A, B, C and D,” said Jesse Hagopian, a Garfield teacher at the forefront of the boycott.

The “Scrap the MAP” movement — which recently succeeded in motivating nearly three-quarters of Garfield students opt out of the district-mandated exam — comes at a time when state education leaders and lawmakers are grappling with larger testing changes.

  • Lawmakers in both the state House and Senate are pushing for a “Parent’s Right to Know” that would have schools dispel confusion by requiring that they explain which tests are required, at what grades, and how much they cost (the states spends upward of $100 million on its current tests).
  • Washington state continues to press forward toward yet another assessment system as it joins a majority of states in adopting the Common Core State Standards. The shift means adding an 11th grade assessment measuring teens’ readiness for first-year college studies.

The state teachers union says enough is enough.

Washington Education Association lobbyist Wendy Rader-Konofalski told lawmakers the group wants a moratorium on using tests as part of graduation requirements.

“Our K-12 system is going through a massive transition and our kids are caught in the middle of it,” she said.

'The test is not the standard'

One thing is certain: Whatever they look like, state tests aren’t going away.

Longtime state Sen. Mary McAuliffe, who voted in favor of the 1993 law that established state standards for schools, said testing provides the means to hold all schools accountable and ensure a diploma means something.

“Prior to that we just passed kids through school because they sat in a seat. And that’s not OK,” she said.

Education experts who navigate the maze of school trends and research say standardized testing is far from disappearing — and it can help parents by adding to the “big picture” of how their child is doing in school.

“Let’s say you are buying a new house. You could buy it just based on one factor — price, for example. But you will likely make a better decision with more information including square footage, location, quality of schools, age of the house, etc. The same thing, too, for student learning; you will know your child better and likely make better decisions with information from multiple sources rather than just one,” said Ron Dietel, of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing.

But that doesn’t mean students should do nothing but take tests all day, Dietel added. Tests don’t supplant the expertise and experience of a good teacher. And those who think the perfect test will be the key to improved achievement are in for a disappointment, he said.

As Dorn put it: “The test is not the standard.”

Policy by fiat?

In Seattle, as in a growing number of districts in the country, frustrated teachers and parents say the negative consequences of testing outweigh its benefits.

Much attention has been paid to the MAP test’s use at the high-school level.

But parent Shawna Murphy said it’s laughable to see kindergartners try and take the test, too, when many of them don’t know how to use a computer mouse or put on headphones. Her daughter, now in third grade, took the test as a kindergartner at Pathfinder K–8.

“Her teacher shared stories of kids just yelling the answers at the computer, and it turned out one kid didn't even have any sound in his headphones so who knows what was going on with his test,” Murphy recalled. “Then in first grade my daughter was so distraught taking the test that the principal actually had to sit and hold her hand the entire time.”

Her daughter’s MAP scores went down that spring, even though the teacher agreed she wasn’t “un-learning” anything.

Murphy said she’s to the point where she doesn’t trust any standardized test to give a meaningful or accurate picture of her child’s progress. But unlike parents at Garfield and other schools, she chose not to opt her child out of the MAP.

“First, she already has to be the vegan, atheist kid with food allergies and dyslexia — so I don't want her to be the only kid in her class who has to sit around in the office while the other kids are taking the test,” Murphy said. “Second, I don't think it is fair to make elementary school kids fight our battles for a quality education.”

Jana Carlisle has had “robust discussions” with her teenage son, who attends Garfield.

No wonder: Carlisle is head of Partnership for Learning, which supports testing as a means of holding schools accountable. She said she dislikes the way “the MAP flap” has played out.

“Policy by fiat, is that the right way to change things?”

Partnership for Learning supports the state’s shift to Common Core State Standards, and Carlisle said she believes the new system will address many of the teachers’ concerns, including that tests have a direct relationship to what they’re teaching.

“I know people think there are constantly changing requirements and assessments. But if you think about it, we don’t complain when our iPhones get updated. We’re constantly improving and trying to get better at what assessments do and how they inform comparisons,” she said.

Hagopian, the Garfield teacher, said he and his colleagues are in the midst of researching the Common Core and other means of assessment to see what they might support. But he said the focus needs to shift away from testing.

“The discussion around getting a set of standards that are the same everywhere in America is a bit misplaced for what we really need,” he said. What schools really need to help students succeed, he said, are smaller class sizes and added supports, such as after-school tutoring, for struggling students.

In the meantime, he’s getting used to national media shadowing him in his classroom.

Within the Seattle school district, teachers at Ballard High School, The Center School, Chief Sealth International High School and Orca K–8 School also joined the protest. The boycott has received displays of support from across and outside the state. And the intense national media coverage has helped to spark teacher protests in other cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles.

Students in other parts of the country also have joined the picket lines, from Portland, Ore., to Providence, R.I., in numbers that are relatively small but large enough enough to gain attention (dressing as zombies might help).

Washington isn’t alone in having official second thoughts. Texas and California are among other states looking at ratcheting back the number of tests they give.

McAuliffe, the state senator, said she expects decisions about Washington’s system to come this session.

“I hope we can do them together,” she said.

Melissa Slager is a freelance writer with more than a decade of experience writing about education topics. She enjoys reading books with her two young girls at home in Everett and keeping the crazies away with a blog, silly = sane.


Lecture series

Concerned about the increasing academic pressures our kids face? Attend ParentMap's Lecture Series on March 14, 2013 at Town Hall Seattle to hear Denise Pope, Stanford University lecturer and education thought leader, and learn how to help reduce stress at home without sacrificing school achievement. More info and tickets here.

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