Should teachers be allowed to boycott tests?

Many of my readers heartily dislike standardized tests, and the increasingly prominent role they play in teacher as well as student evaluation. But how far should teachers carry this dislike?

I ask because a group of teachers in the Seattle area has decided to boycott the state’s mandated Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test.

Here’s the story, from the Seattle Times:

Eleven years ago, Rachel Eells saw value in the tests that she and other teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School are now refusing to give their students.

Back then, she was a new middle-school teacher in the Highline School District, and the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) helped her identify the strengths and weaknesses of her students in reading.

But Eells grew disenchanted with the MAP, saying it was, at best, a rough diagnostic tool that often left her with more questions than answers, especially with her older students.      She couldn’t tell why, for example, a student would do well on literary terms one time, then poorly the next.

So when a Garfield colleague asked Eells last month whether she would consider boycotting the MAP, she said yes so quickly the colleague paused, a little taken aback.

But Eells didn’t need time to weigh the pros and cons.

“I don’t want to spend my time or my students’ time on something that’s not useful or beneficial,” she said.

Since Garfield teachers announced their boycott nearly two weeks ago, they have been hailed as heroes by those concerned about the overuse and misuse of standardized tests, although the teachers have been careful to say they’re not protesting all tests, just this one.

Are they heroes?

I’m not so sure. Here’s an op-ed, also from the Seattle Times, that reflects my concern with the boycott and indeed with many of the anti-testing crusades:

Make no mistake,teachers make worthwhile points about the shortcomings of MAP, some outlined in this compelling op-ed. But leaders of the boycott offer nothing to take its place.

Nada. Zip. Zulch. Not even a vague notion of how to measure broadly the progress of academically struggling students while looking for a successor to MAP.

A teacher quoted in this story said she relies more on her classroom-based assessments than on the MAP. Can every teacher not only say the same, but prove it with a direct connection between their assessments, a plan of action for struggling learners and growth in student achievement?  This is after all supposed to be a boycott inspired by concern about students.

As Banda told the Times Editorial Board this afternoon, “We owe it to our students to have assessments.”

This afternoon, I asked Jonathan Knapp, president of the Seattle Education Association, what test teachers would prefer over MAP. He said teachers want a more relevant assessment and one that actually tells them something. I agree. What’s the name of that test so the district can bring it to Seattle? Knapp said he doesn’t pretend to know what’s out there and spoke about creating new tests, rather than buying them. Meanwhile, students are assessed based on what? If every student emerged from Seattle high schools with the basic skills necessary, this would not be an issue, but too many don’t so not having any local assessment is a non-starter. (The district also uses state assessments.)

You can follow this link to another editorial, this time in support of the teachers.

I’d like to see teachers more actively involved in designing assessments . . . but allowing each teacher to design his or her own seems very problematic. What if the teacher deems a skill unimportant that school districts, or parents, or legislators think students should master? How can results be compared? And – ah, here’s the rub – how can individualized assessments shed any light on teacher performance?






  1. Yak_Herder

    There are readers who “heartily dislike standardized tests”, and then there are readers like me, who are all for standardized tests so long as they are neither too frequent nor poorly designed. In Utah, we suffer from both ills.

    The motivations for the boycott in Washington is tainted by the stink of personal gain. Teachers there expressed a concern that the results of the MAP testing would be used against them when it came time to determine compensation. Albeit a valid concern, it’s a bogus justification for their actions. If compensation is the real rub, then the boycott is little more than anarchy. If good teaching and learning really is the concern, then they should never have created the doubt by bringing the compensation thing into the discussiom. There are other, appropriate, ways to respond to that concern.

    Bad tests are a huge problem. They waste time and resources. Worse yet, when the results of bad tests are used to determine priorities or drive policy (ref: Bingham High), then things really spin out of control in a hurry. If that is the case, a boycott is a pretty good idea.

    All of this highlights the importance of well-conceived standards, and just how critical (and difficult) it is to develop tests from those standards. It requires a great deal of input, time, and effort. And yet, all three are often actively minimized.

    Love ’em or hate ’em, the Common Core is better than Utah’s current set of standards. The sooner we can develop a quality set of exams using them as a basis, the better. Then, we could ditch Utah’s CRTs (ugh, and the UBSKT tests are already gone), “free” PLAN tests for Sophomores and ACT tests for Juniors (they have a different purpose and aren’t for everyone). Issues would still exist, but doing all of that would bring things down down to a more reasonable volume of testing.

    Keep tests results in the realm they belong (Separate from teacher compensation- wait, Did I just taint the argument?) and we might just get things back in balance.

    • Mary McConnell

      I agree that there are a lot of bad tests out there, but I fear that no test is ever good enough to be deemed suitable for an evaluation metric. Voltaire famously observed (actually quoting someone else) that the best is the enemy of the good. Personally, I’d settle for good. No test is ever going to be perfect, and no test should be the ONLY measure of success.

      I think that tight links between teacher compensation and even well-designed value-added measures are problematic. I have a lot less trouble with using these measures to identify teachers who are performing poorly over several years, and failing to show improvement.

  2. Randal

    “Teachers are the experts” when it comes to our children. Why should we mess with the system?
    I say this with a “bit” of sarcasm. If the system and our teachers are doing so great, why are we as a nation crying for changes. Those who know what we are producing in our public school system know that in many cases it is not quality.
    I am a community college adjunct math teacher. I teach the math that should be learned in middle school. Why do I have so many students taking my class after having this subject for 7 years (6-12 grades)? Because, our system fails about ½ of the students.
    Teachers who believe that tests don’t prove anything are either stupid or are just worried about their jobs. Those students who want to skip my math class have a chance to demonstrate their knowledge on tests; ACT, SAT, or a placement test. Students placed into my classes because of low test scores show that they NEED my class. Teachers have to pass tests to become teachers, to expect less from our children in criminal.
    Are these tests perfect? No. Is there something better? I haven’t seen it. The best thing is for our “system” to demand that students perform while in school. No coddling them just so they can pass and Graduation rates looks good, the measure that seems most important to the system (teachers),
    I know that there will still be students who struggle. But, I don’t believe our current “system” is doing as well as it could in graduating a prepared work force. I don’t hold parents blameless in this either. Parents and teachers expect to little from our students and students feel they are entitled to pass just for showing up.
    Our system needs to change to put more responsibility back on the parents and to raise the bar for our teachers and their students. My background is in manufacturing and we could not stay in business with the failure rates our schools have.

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