by Wayne Au
On the afternoon of Thursday, January 10th, a group of about 15 teachers stood together in the front of room 206 at Garfield High School in Seattle, Washington. News cameras and audio recorders from local media outlets crowded the podium as reporters, students, colleagues, and supporters listened closely. The teachers at Garfield High School were announcing that they had agreed, nearly unanimously, to resist giving the district-mandated computer test known as the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) to their students.
One by one, teachers explained why they had made this decision. Some talked about the wasting of valuable classroom time for a test that is given three times a year. Some talked about the inaccuracy of the test because it wasn’t aligned with grade level content standards. Some talked about how, even though experts at the Northwest Evaluation Association (creators of the MAP) have cautioned against using high-stakes, standardized tests for teacher evaluation, the Seattle Public Schools will be using the MAP test as part of their evaluations anyway.
Some reported that district officials had admitted that the measurement error of the MAP is greater than any of the expected gains at the high school level, rendering the results invalid. Some discussed that, since there were no stakes attached for students, by the time the third MAP test rolled around many students just clicked buttons to get it over with, making the results inaccurate. And all of the teachers stressed that they were interested in doing what is best for the education of their students.
As I stood in the back of the room peering over the shoulders of reporters and between the news camera tripods, I was ecstatic. I am a proud graduate of Garfield High School, class of 1990, and I even returned there as a social studies and language arts teacher for the 2000-2001 school year. When I approached the classroom press conference that afternoon, I was overcome with memories of walking those very same halls as both a teacher and a student—studying Spanish in this room, teaching 9th grade language arts in that room.
I also remembered some of my teachers there, especially Mr. Davis and his powerful African Studies class, and I remembered my own struggle as a teacher to keep that same African Studies class alive in the curriculum [see “Decolonizing the Classroom,” Rethinking Schools, Winter 2008/2009]. And now I was here as a teacher of teachers and researcher of standardized testing, showing support for Garfield teachers, some of whom are personal friends and political allies. I couldn’t have been happier.
Located in the historically African American neighborhood of Seattle known as the Central District, Garfield High School has a long political history. For instance, Garfield was a well-known Seattle hotspot of Black Panther activity in the 1960s and ‘70s. More recently, last year Garfield students walked out en masse and marched to the mayor’s office to protest cuts to public education. And now Garfield teachers have taken the bold step of collectively resisting a district-mandated high-stakes, standardized test.
As news of the Garfield teacher resistance spread (and is spreading), it quickly and rightly became a cause celebre amongst progressive education activists who have been fighting against corporate education reform. People like Diane Ravitch and Brian Jones have been posting about it, and teachers, parents, students, and professors from around the United States and the globe have been expressing their support at the facebook solidarity page. There is now an online petition to sign in support of the Garfield teachers, and teachers from other schools, including Seattle’s Ballard High School, are drafting and signing their own letters of support. Garfield’s student leadership has also lent their support. In the words of student body president Obadiah Stephens-Terry, “We really think our teachers are making the right decision. I know when I took the test, it didn’t seem relevant to what we were studying in class.”
As I watched the press conference one thing I realized is that in their collective resistance, the individual teachers at Garfield framed their resistance in different ways. From their remarks, for some this was a rejection of standardized testing and the corporate education reform agenda more broadly, while for others this was just about an awful test.
In this “big tent” approach, I think the Garfield teachers are sharing at least two important lessons with us:
- Effective education activism sometimes means bringing folks together around a specific issue, but doing so in a way that is broad enough to capture a relatively diverse range of viewpoints on that issue; and
- However individual Garfield teachers make sense of their protest, within the broader context of the struggles against high-stakes testing and corporate education reform nationwide, this action takes on important symbolic meaning that extends well beyond Garfield, the Central District, and Seattle.
At the most basic level, the national corporate school reform agenda requires teachers’ compliance. So regardless of individual motives, when a group of teachers collectively and publicly says NO, that represents a fundamental challenge to those pushing that elite agenda. The growing support for Garfield teachers’ resistance to the MAP test is a testament to just how much the collective action of teachers at one school means to the rest of the world.
Having all of the teachers at a school decide to support a boycott of a high-stakes, standardized test is a rare and beautiful thing, one that hasn’t happened since some Chicago teachers did it over a decade ago. That is powerful and inspirational stuff, and as far as I’m concerned, because we don’t yet know the district’s response, the teachers at Garfield are showing a level courage and heroism that I love and admire. Thank you Garfield teachers. You make me proud to be a Garfield Bulldog.
Wayne Au is a Rethinking Schools editor and an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Washington, Bothell.
“Testing our Limits,” by Melissa Bollow Tempel. Rethinking Schools, Spring 2012.
Pencils Down: Rethinking High-Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools, edited by Wayne Au and Melissa Bollow Tempel.