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Does the Battle in Seattle Foreshadow Trouble for the Common Core?

Tomorrow is National Solidarity day with the teachers at Garfield High and elsewhere in Seattle, who have stood together in refusing to administer the district-mandated MAP tests. This is hugely important, not only because of the courageous stand of these teachers, but for what it tells us about the highly touted "next generation" of assessments that will accompany the Common Core.

Here are four big reasons this battle is so significant.

First, this is the first time teachers have agreed as a group to refuse to administer a set of tests. Individuals have done this in the past, and faced individual consequences. However, their solidarity creates a problem for the system, because it not only gums up the machinery, it also challenges the authority of the school district. It asserts professional responsibility on the part of the teachers. Their stand is based on what they believe is best for their students.

Second, these teachers have taken a highly public stand, and are gathering support from many quarters. In addition to other high schools, parents and the local NAACP have stepped forward to endorse the boycott. Tomorrow is a day of national solidarity for the teachers in Seattle, and there will be actions around the country to show support. Both Randi Weingarten of the AFT and Dennis Van Roekel of the NEA have issued statements of support. This has become a lightning rod for protest against our obsession with test scores.

Third, the target of this, the MAP tests, are NOT the bad old multiple choice tests that everyone, from Arne Duncan to Barack Obama have condemned. If you read the glowing description of the MAP test, you find that it represents the new frontier Secretary Duncan has promised will make all of our troubles with multiple choice tests go away.

Fourth, the timing of this protest is potentially powerful. Although the MAP tests are not the statewide standardized tests used for accountability purposes, this action could have a galvanizing effect on teachers around the country, who may decide that this spring is the time to finally take a stand. If teachers and parents join forces and boycott/opt out of standardized tests in large numbers, this could throw the entire data-managed system into disarray.

Here is how the MAP website describes the tests that are the focus of this controversy:

Created by educators for educators, MAP assessments provide detailed, actionable data about where each child is on their unique learning path. Because student engagement is essential to any testing experience, NWEA works with educators to create test items that interest children and help to capture detail about what they know and what they're ready to learn. It's information teachers can use in the classroom to help every child, every day.
Adapting the Test to the Student
MAP dynamically adapts to a student's responses - as they take the test.
  • Answer a question correctly and the test presents a more challenging item
  • Miss a question, and MAP offers a simpler item
In this way, the test narrows in on a student's learning level, engaging them with content that allows them to succeed.

Stacey Childress, director of the Gates Foundation's Next Generations Models team explains:

For learning outcomes, "years of growth" will be measured at the student and school level in math, language arts, and problem-solving using the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) adaptive assessment, given at the beginning of the study to establish a baseline and then at the end of each academic year to evaluate growth.

These tests represent the vision for assessment put forth by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in his 2010 speech "Beyond the Bubble, the Next Generation of Assessments."

Duncan said:

For the first time, teachers will consistently have timely, high-quality formative assessments that are instructionally useful and document student growth--rather than just relying on after-the-fact, year-end tests used for accountability purposes.
For the first time, state assessments will make widespread use of smart technology. They will provide students with realistic, complex performance tasks, immediate feedback, computer adaptive testing, and incorporate accommodations for a range of students. And he made it very clear that this next generation of assessments would be closely tied to the Common Core standards.

We are approaching a real crossroads. Educators, parents and students have come to loath NCLB and the tests that have become ever more intrusive in our schools. Secretary Duncan and well-paid functionaries from all sides have promised that the "next generation" of assessments will be so superior that we will no longer object to high stakes being attached to them. Unlike any large scale standardized tests ever devised before, they will measure and promote critical thinking. But we no longer need to suspend our judgment. Teachers in Seattle have seen the future. Their verdict is clear. The emperor has no clothes.

Here is the Garfield educators' explanation of the problems they see:

Our teachers have come together and agree that the MAP test is not good for our students, nor is it an appropriate or useful tool in measuring progress," said Kris McBride, who serves as Academic Dean and Testing Coordinator at Garfield. "Additionally, students don't take it seriously. It produces specious results, and wreaks havoc on limited school resources during the weeks and weeks the test is administered.
McBride explained that the MAP test is administered two to three times each year to 9th grade students as well as those receiving extra support services. The students are told the test will have no impact on their grades or class standing, and, because of this, students tend to give it little thought to the test and hurry through it. In addition, there seems to be little overlap between what teachers are expected to teach (state and district standards) and what is measured on the test. Despite this flaw, McBride stated, results of the MAP tests are used by district officials to help evaluate the effectiveness of instructors who give the test. "Our teachers feel strongly that this type of evaluative tool is unfair based on the abundance of problems with the exam, the content, and the statistical insignificance of the students' scores," she says.

This protest is raising flags in other places like Hartford, Connecticut, where Gates funding is also serving to bring MAP testing to the schools.

Up until this point, both the NEA and the AFT have been directly involved in the Common Core assessment process. This grassroots rebellion on the part of educators places a big question mark over the future of the project. If educators and parents continue to insist that assessments not be allowed to erode the quality of our schools, this could be the beginning of the end for the entire testing regime.

You can sign a petition in support of the test boycott here.

Update: The District has backed down on its threats to suspend teachers. Instead, they will pull students from classes for the next three weeks to take the tests, under the supervision of administrators. Read here for details.

Update 2:
Local Seattle news video: Garfield High students explain their perspective on the MAP test boycott.

There will be a webinar featuring Garfield teachers this coming Sunday. Details and registration are here.

What do you think? Does the battle in Seattle foreshadow what lies ahead with the Common Core assessments?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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