The Garfield High School Assessment Committee VS the Testocracy: We know how to run the schools better than billionaires
On Thursday of last week I attended a meeting of the Garfield High School Assessment Committee.
A report on one of many after school meetings may seem mundane. A committee of educators tasked with discussing assessment might appear innocuous. Yet that gathering of fifteen or so educators sharing their experience, expertise, and asking questions about alternatives to standardized testing was nothing short of sedition against a Testocracy that has attempted to silence teachers as it implements corporate education reform.
This team of dedicated educators forming the Garfield High School Assessment Committee was born out of the MAP test boycott last school year, which resulted in the Seattle School District backing away from its threat of suspending the boycotting teachers and ultimately—a year ago this month—forced the district to make the test optional at the high school level. From the very beginning of the MAP boycott, teachers at Garfield High School asserted that our strike against the test had nothing to do with shirking accountability to our students’ learning. We said that assessments are essential to teachers to help us understand where the student is in their zone of proximal development in order to scaffold their learning to advance their understanding of a given concept. And many of us simultaneously asserted that standardized testing, and the MAP test in particular, is a clumsy form of assessment that often hides more than it reveals about student knowledge–particularly the thought process and how a student arrived at particular answer. Worse, these tests primarily assess students’ ability to eliminate wrong answer choices and are too puny an instrument to measure collaboration, passion, imagination and a myriad of other qualities that are vital to the development of the whole child.
The Assessment Committee began the meeting by asking teachers why they were at the meeting and what types of assessments they were interested in learning about. As the list grew on the white board, so too did my confidence that collaboration of educators could enhance the education of our students–and that our collective action to assert the power of authentic assessment could serve as a beacon to educators around the country looking to reclaim classrooms from a Testocracy intent on grafting a business model onto education that reduces the intellectual process of teaching and learning a single score. Some of these teachers’ ideas included:
- Project-based learning coupled with performance-based assessment
- Interdisciplinary studies along with portfolios
- Student generated rubrics to assess their own work
- Students taking group assessments
- Teachers working collectively to assess student work
As my colleague Rachel Eells told the Times, “The MAP protest was really just the start of a deeper dialogue about how to we assess students in a meaningful way and how we use assessments to meaningfully inform instruction.” Garfield’s Assessment Committee has been meeting regularly all year and recently reported back to the staff at Garfield High School about a partnership our school has formed with a network of schools called the New York Performance Standards Consortium that has a waiver from the New York Regents exams and instead utilizes a sophisticated method of Performance Based Assessment. The Seattle Times recently ran an article about Garfield High School’s partnership with the New York Performance Standards Consortium,”New way to test? Garfield teachers explore New York model.”
I first became aware of the Consortium schools while attending a conference of the Advancement Project in Washington, D.C. last year. I had the pleasure of attending a panel with two teachers and a student who explained the power of their approach to performance based assessments that allowed students to do research over time, develop a thesis, and present their findings to a panel comprised of teachers, administrators, parents and community members. The student spoke movingly to how this approach to evaluation helped rescue the importance of school for him, and the teachers revealed that the Consortium Schools have higher graduation rates as compared with other demographically similar public schools in New York. After the presentation, I was delighted to meet the student and teachers, and they expressed their support for the MAP test boycott. Avram Barlowe, one of the founding teachers of the Consortium Schools asked me if Garfield teachers would be interested in attending workshops at the New York Performance Standards Consortium.
Avram then put me in touch with Phyllis Tashlik, one of the directors of the program, and over the course of the year our principal and a few of our teachers have made multiple trips to the Consortium Schools and have brought back with them invaluable insights into the learning process and assessment methods. This is what real education reform looks like: educators collaborating to share best practices to retake their profession from billionaires and their flunkies who know little about the craft of teaching.
A couple of days ago a New York area code popped up on my cell phone. I didn’t recognize the number—but when a teacher on the other end of line said that she was organizing a testing boycott at her high school, I certainly recognized the situation.
Emily Giles, a teacher at International High School at Prospect Heights, told me about a standardized test that was disrespecting the schools’ English Language Learner (ELL) students’ cultural and linguistic diversity. She told me about ELL students who were brought to tears during the fall pre-test administration of the exam because of the level of English used was far above the level of beginner ELLs—and thus provided very little useful feedback for the teachers. Emily told me about a test that some 50% of the parents were already set to opt out of. And she told me of the dedicated educators who were no longer willing to see their students humiliated or their profession degraded by the abuses of the NYC ELA Performance Assessment Test.
Similar conditions arose in Seattle last year when my colleagues at Garfield High School refused to administer the MAP test—and succeed in making the test optional for high schools. When I spoke to Emily, it was clear that she and her coworkers had already set in motion all the key components to a successful direct action campaign against the tests. We discussed how there are no guarantees about the outcome when you engage in civil disobedience, but that because her colleagues had built such a strong base of support among teachers and parents, if the staff truly felt that they could not administer this test in good conscience, I thought it was worth taking this stand for her students.
I checked in with her last night as she was preparing for the press conference today to see how she was holding up. I remember the fear vividly—the cold sweats and sleepless nights—I had when we prepared to announce that Garfield would refuse to administer the MAP test, and I figured she could use some support. What she told me let me know that these teachers are ready to take a bite out of the Big Apple. She said,
I’m feeling a little nervous, very excited, and completely inspired by the people I work with. I’m feeling really happy and honored to work with people who are so passionate about what they do, and care so deeply what happens in our classrooms and the lives of the young people we work with.
Today is May Day—international workers’ day. There is no better way to celebrate the struggles of workers today than by supporting these courageous educators at the first high school in New York City to boycott a standardized test by signing on to the petition in their defense.
Today is also my late Grandfather’s birthday. Happy Birthday Grandpa Chuck! Chuck was a conscientious objector during WWII. I said to him once near the end of his life, “Weren’t you afraid of how your peers and society would look at you for not going to fight in the war? That must have been a hard decision.” He paused before he spoke and I have never seen my gentle, soft-spoken grandfather look so fierce. To be honest, his look gave me a scare. Then he replied, “No it wasn’t hard at all. What would have been hard would have been to kill someone.”
That same gentle fierceness of spirit burns within the conscientious test objectors at International High School at Prospect Heights.
Don’t give up. And when you reach the end of your life, you will look back in certainty at having made the only choice you could have: Following your convictions in pursuit of justice.