Movement resists test culture

“We are now, currently in the biggest revolt against high-stakes testing in US history,” Seattle’s Garfield High School history teacher, author of “More than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing,” and participant in the 2013 educational protests in which teachers refused to administer the mandatory state MAP exam Jesse Hagopian told Vassar students and Poughkeepsie community members on Thursday, Feb. 12. In his lecture and by his accounts of his participation in education activism, Hagopian challenged students and Poughkeepsie community members to see high-stakes testing as a method of defunding public education and depriving young students of fair learning opportunities, particularly those from impoverished and underprivileged social and ethnic backgrounds.

The veteran teacher and union representative for the teachers at Garfield High School focused on his experiences working alongside students and teachers to prevent the students from forced high-stakes testing, which took the form of the MAP test.

The MAP, or Measure of Academic Progress, test is a computerized examination that assesses and tracks students’ understanding of mathematics and reading comprehension that students start in primary school. It is one form of high-stakes testing in a group that includes the SAT and the ACT.

According to the official Seattle Public Schools website, the test, which is administered for 45 minutes per subject multiple times each year and was introduced to Hagopian’s school district in Seattle only a few years prior, is used in 131 districts in Washington state. Three million of these high-risk tests are taken annually in the United States and around the world.

Although the problem is a national phenomenon, Hagopian presented the issue of high-stakes testing from his own recent experiences in Seattle. First approached by a teacher who had discussed refusing to administer the test, Hagopian recounted how his participation in countless meetings with fellow Garfield High School teachers illuminated the overwhelming problem with the test.

He explained, “Uniformly all the teachers found this test to be completely irrelevant. We heard that it wasn’t aligned to the curriculum.” Teachers recounted how the MAP test’s decision to include questions not formulated around the school curriculum to evaluate student progress and teacher’s ability was impractical and unfair.

Despite concerns about the punishment for refusing to administer the test and being labelled insubordinate, inevitably, when placed to a whole-faculty vote, the teachers unanimously voted to defy the district mandate.

The teachers of Garfield High School, Hagopian explained, quickly learned the systemic nature of the problem when, after officially announcing their defiance, a school in Florida sent them free pizzas to raise their spirits.

The speaker recounted his thoughts at the time, “We are not in this alone. People on the other side of the country are counting on us. This isn’t just about us here at Garfield with this one bad test. This is about an entire system that is predicated upon reducing the intellectual process of teaching and learning to a single number that they can then use to punish children. It’s happening all over the country.”

The teachers then received unwavering support from their students, which Hagopian interpreted as a sign of hope and ideological strength in the coming generation. In spite of intimidation tactics by school administrators and teachers, Garfield students staged classroom sit-ins, begged parents to allow them to opt out of taking the test and intentionally invalidated test sheets so that almost no tests were deemed admissible. Inevitably, this united effort by students led to the school’s decision that the MAP test would be made optional in the coming school year.

Although the MAP test became optional for students within his district, Hagopian quickly noted that high-stakes testing is currently causing similar damage across the country, highlighting contests between school administrators and teachers in Illinois, New York and Colorado. He noted that currently, tens of thousands of families living within the state of New York alone have opted their children out, or allowed their children to choose to opt out, of high-stakes testing.

The battle over high-stakes testing, Hagopian and members of Vassar’s new chapter of the national organization Students United for Public Education (SUPE) agree, stretches beyond the field of education, instead intersecting with issues of race and inequality in America.

Although ostensibly created to help schools improve the quality of education that they provide students, particularly students from impoverished communities and backgrounds, Hagopian pointed to the perceived hypocrisy of those seeking education reform through testing. He called this system “A corporate education reform movement.”

He argued that the use of standardized tests to label a school as failing, close it, and then utilize the funding for charter schools reveal the true nature of this reform movement to be harmful and oppressive.

“The test really has nothing to do with wanting to improve achievement for students of color. It’s really about a ‘test and punish’ model to starve public education and to privatize education,”

Hagopian later went on to explain. “Everything that they are trying to do [is] getting rid of critical thinking so students don’t have the tools to challenge oppression … to produce educational inadequacies.”

SUPE echoed this in an emailed statement, writing, “Testing is a huge social justice issue. Standardized tests originated from the eugenics movement and continue to perpetuate inequities by unjustly labeling students and schools as ‘failures’ and unjustly allocating resources.

After the passing of No Child Left Behind in 2002, many students, especially those in schools labeled ‘failing,’ have spent hours on test preparation. Test-prep limits the amount of time teachers can spend on curriculum that really matters­—lessons designed to promote creative, critical thinking.”

Hagopian also noted the depth of the intersection of this issue through his expertise as a history teacher, recounting famous detractors of testing methods in education.

He observed, “This movement, while its the biggest that it’s ever been in US history, stands on the shoulders of giants because the first test resisters that really organized and brought out the severe problems with these tests were black intellectuals in the early 1900s, people like W.E.B. DuBois.”

While Hagopian placed high-stakes testing in the context of K-12 education, SUPE noted that Vassar students have retained their stake in the discussion despite having graduated from high school.

They argued, “College students will take more standardized tests as they apply to grad school and to various work fields, that means more time and money will be spent on test preparation. Standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT also help to decide who is admitted to Vassar.”

This development marks the first major event by both the Education Majors Committee and the Vassar chapter of SUPE, despite small tabling conducted by SUPE last semester encouraging students to resist Teach for America. The organization formed due to a perceived gap in student activism on this intersectional issue.

The group explained, “We created SUPE because the campus was missing a group that discussed education policies and focused on the root causes of educational injustice.”

The national SUPE organization’s mission statement reads, “SUPE is a community based organization because we believe that public schools are the heart of every community. We understand that in order for our goals to be reached, we must work with not only K-12 students, but parents, teachers, and community members as a whole.”

It continues, “We want to work with communities to find what their needs are, and have them lead the way in the struggle as we work as equals to organize the change they believe is best.” Among the group’s chief goals are eliminating high-stakes testing, supporting teachers’ unions and preventing any funding cuts or closures to public schools.

Pleased with the attendance of the their first official campus event by both students and other community members, SUPE looks to continue its development as a student organization this semester.

Although the group has yet to announce any upcoming events or campaigns, SUPE members encourage any students who may be interested in helping to combat inequity or to support educational reform to contact Alexia Garcia ’18.with any questions.

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