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How Mass Civil Disobedience at a Seattle High School Catalyzed the 'Education Spring'

Garfield High School launched testing boycott that spread to other schools in the city and helped spark a national movement to oppose testing abuses.

Seattle's Garfield High School, home of the bulldogs, is used to winning.

Our jazz band is a perennial winner of the Essential Ellington national completion, our track and basketball team are perennial state contenders, our drumline just took the top place in the end of the year regional competition, and we have award-winning clubs such as Junior State of America debate team and the knowledge bowl. But this year we scored a whole different kind of victory: Not a high score on the test, but a defeat of the test itself. Not a win for a competition, but a victory for the solidarity of students, parents, and teachers in the struggle for authentic assessment over standardized testing.

On January 9, 2013, teachers at Garfield held a press conference announcing their unanimous vote to boycott the Measures of Academic Progress test. At that press conference Garfield's academic dean and testing coordinator, Kris McBride explained, "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. 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."

Teachers cited several facts: the MAP isn't aligned to the curriculum, it is inappropriate for special-education students and English-language learners, and the makers of the test acknowledge that the test should not be used to evaluate teachers—as well as the fact that at the high school level the test has a higher margin of error than expected gains, rendering it statistically invalid.

With that, Garfield High School launched a boycott of the MAP test that spread to other schools in the city and helped spark a national movement to oppose the abuses of standardized testing. In the ensuing weeks and months we saw, in what is becoming known as the "education spring," Portland students initiate their own boycott of the OAKS tests, some 10,000 parents and students march in Texas against the overuse of high-stakes tests, and kindergartners and their parents stage a "play-in" at the Chicago School District headquarters against the replacement of the arts with norm-referenced exams, among many other examples.

The Seattle School District initially threatened to punish teachers—including a 10-day suspension without pay—but with the unanimous vote of the Garfield High School PTSA and student government, and after hundreds of phone calls and emails from parents and teachers around the country poured in, they eventually backed off from the attack. After months of rallies, teach-ins, call-ins, and opt-outs, we received proof positive that a group of determined people can still make change. In an all-district email sent on May 13, Superintendent José Banda wrote, "High schools may opt out of MAP in 2013-14." The announcement led to elation and spontaneous celebrations at Garfield High School as students and teachers traded high fives and fist bumps in the hallways.

Garfield High School's Librarian Janet Woodward summed up the meaning of the MAP test boycott for Garfield saying, "I feel vindicated by the decision to remove MAP testing from the high schools. Our movement has succeeded in exposing all of the fallacies of using this canned assessment. It is a waste of money and time, turns professionals into proctor clerks, and produces results which are not statistically relevant."

This victory against a standardized test represents a high stakes test for corporate education reformers who have attempted to reduce the intellectual process of teaching and learning to selecting answer choices, A, B, C, or D. Their entire project of denying students graduation, firing teachers, closing schools, and privatizing education through the proliferation of charter schools rests on their ability to reduce teachers and students to a single score. Our ability in Seattle to unite students, parents, and teachers in a movement for a more meaningful and empowering education is a threat to their whole project.

In an effort to demonstrate what authentic assessment could be, educators in Seattle established a Teacher Work Group on Assessment, which engaged in months of research resulting in the "Markers of Quality Assessment" (PDF)—recommended guidelines for developing assessments. The guidelines promote assessments that reflect actual student knowledge and learning, not just test-taking skills; are educational in and of themselves; are free of gender, class and racial bias; are differentiated to meet students' needs; allow opportunities to go back and improve; undergo regular evaluation and revision by educators.

The Work Group concluded that quality assessments, at their base, must integrate with classroom curriculum, measure student growth toward standards achievement, and take the form of performance tasks. Teachers across Seattle are working this summer to use these guidelines to develop assessments that will replace MAP with high quality assessments that stem from the actual work being done in the class room across the curriculum.

Secretary of Education and corporate education champion Arne Duncan has called education "the civil rights issue of our time." His vision of this civil rights movement is his signature Race to the Top program that pits school districts against each other in a vicious competition for desperately needed federal funding. Only the districts that promote charter schools and increase the use of standardized testing are eligible for these federal dollars.

Duncan even went as far as proposing that the anti-teacher and anti-public education film Waiting for Superman was the "Rosa Parks moment" of the movement for education. Secretary Duncan is right that the struggle for quality education is a major civil rights issue of our time. Yet I seem to remember that the civil rights movement wasn't started by billionaires, their foundations, or a film they sponsored.

If I remember correctly—I do teach U.S. history, so I hope I got this right—the civil rights movement was launched with a certain boycott. As Garfield Special Education teacher Serena Samar said of the MAP boycott victory, "Our actions as a staff have reignited the belief that a group of people can make a difference."

If we ever hope to transform our schools from fill-in-the-bubble factories used to rank and then sort our children into problem-solving academies that nurture critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration—in services of helping young people overcome such social ills as endless war, mass incarceration, climate change—it will take nothing short of the kind of mass civil disobedience that propelled the civil rights movement.

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Testing image via Shutterstock

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