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Down with the 'test-ocracy'?

Seattle teacher and activist Jesse Hagopian.

Photo: Joshua Huston


Seattle is in the middle of a nationwide movement against high-stakes standardized tests, says Jesse Hagopian, a Seattle teacher and activist.

The leadership team at Nathan Hale High School voted in February to forgo giving juniors a new test aligned with the Common Core State Standards, a decision that could lead to losing federal dollars. 

The leadership team, made up of teachers, students, parents and administrators, voted to boycott the test after a lot of discussion, including two community forums and a presentation from a University of Washington expert on high-stakes testing. They offered a list of reasons; among them, that students already are tested enough and the test isn’t a valid, reliable or equitable assessment.

In a letter to parents, Nathan Hale principal Jill Hudson explained why the school wants to boycott the test: “In my time as an educator, I have experienced the progression from assessments that provided feedback to teachers to help them improve their craft, to the current battery of tests that simply label students with a score. The tests that students take now do not provide feedback to help diagnose problems to be remedied, but instead function as autopsies, the end result. Rather than allowing teachers to learn from the scores, these tests rank our students.”

Hagopian points to the boycott as one of a series of incidents around the country in which teachers, students and parents are pushing back against standardized tests.

In 2013, teachers at Garfield High School — the school where Hagopian teaches — voted unanimously not to give students a standardized test adopted by Seattle Public Schools that measures reading and math skills. Hagopian says it likely was the first time in this country that an entire school boycotted a required standardized test. Other Seattle schools followed suit.

The city’s teachers union, the Seattle Education Association, passed a resolution calling for suspension of the Smarter Balanced Assessment test, the same exam that Nathan Hale's leadership team opted to not administer to juniors.

The test hasn't been proven reliable, and arbitrary targets set by its creators are so high that seven in 10 eighth-graders and six out of 10 third-graders are expected to fail, according to the teachers union resolution.

The union instead suggested that schools could continue to administer the Measurements of Student Progress and High School Proficiency Exam to meet state and federal accountability measures.

Nationally, students are walking out of schools by the dozens, sometimes the hundreds, in protest of tests aligned with Common Core, while organizations such as United Opt Out are forming to address standardized tests.

Congress continues its efforts to update the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires public-school students to be tested once a year in math and English in third through eighth grade, and in each subject once in high school. 

Photo: Joshua Huston

Hagopian is the editor of a compilation of essays called More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. He started his teaching career in Washington, D.C., in a classroom with a hole in the ceiling, struggling to inspire and teach students with little in the way of resources or support. He said he quickly came to realize that the standardized tests he was required to give had little to do with improving student learning. 

“Some misguided politicians believe education is about data points rather than children,” he said. “They want to track progress through these neat, simple-to-define test scores, but in fact, anyone who has immersed themselves in education knows the things we should value most in classrooms can’t be quantified.”

Things, he said, such as students’ ability to think critically and creatively, collaborate and demonstrate civic courage. Filling in a multiple-choice test gives educators little meaningful data about student learning. Hagopian called them “outmoded and a pedagogically unsound tool.”

The tests are also inherently biased against students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, he said. They take up valuable classroom time and resources.

“The opt-out movement is very powerful,” Hagopian said. “It says to your child you value their many intelligences and faculties, and I’m not going to allow this system to reduce you to a number. It says to the school system — the ‘test-ocracy’ as I call it — we are not going to allow you to label our kids and profit off that process.”

The most effective thing parents can do is work with other parents and opt out thoughtfully, he added. By that, he means that parents should hold forums and study groups and understand the issue thoroughly themselves. 

Local parents already are doing that. A group called Seattle Opt Out set up a Facebook page in order to “deepen the conversation about high-stakes standardized testing in Seattle.” It includes articles about the issue and recent news. 

Hagopian said this issue is only bound to heat up as more parents realize what’s at stake.


UPDATE:  Students at Nathan Hale High School will have to take a federally-mandated test after all – or at least, teachers will be forced to administer it. The Seattle Public Schools superintendent told teachers at the school they could be suspended or fired for not giving the test. A leadership team voted in February to not give the test to eleventh graders for a host of reasons, including that students were being tested too often. 

Hagopian said at a press conference on April 7 that half of Garfield juniors have protested taking the new Common Core tests; The Seattle Times reports that school staff "will not be asked to escort students in their classrooms to computer labs for testing, Hagopian said. Instead, school administrators will get those students who haven’t “opted out” of the exams when testing begins.

UPDATE: 4/27: None of the 11th grade students at Nathan Hale High School elected to take the SBAC test in April, reports King 5. Earlier in April, more than 100 juniors opted out of the test at Garfield Hugh School.

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