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Lost Without a MAP: Garfield Teachers and the Debate on Standardized Testing

By Mac LeBuhn, DFER Assistant Policy Analyst

For most of the country, February 22nd came and went with little fanfare. For a group of educators at Garfield High School in Seattle, however, the date was weighted with significance. It was the last day the school’s teachers could test their students using the Measures of Academic Progress test (MAP), an assessment that the Garfield High School faculty had recently voted to refuse to administer. On Friday, none of the school’s teachers gave the assessment, otherwise required by the district and the testing window closed.

During a January vote on the MAP, the Garfield teachers challenged the necessity of the test. The teachers argued their students already took several standardized tests administered by the state and the MAP offered them nothing of additional value. They went so far as to suggest that their students’ ability to address the challenges of “endless war, climate change and worldwide economic implosion” would be limited if they were given the assessments—a suggestion that casts “high-stakes testing” in a whole new light.

Following the Garfield High School vote, test critics nationwide joined the Garfield teachers in condemning standardized tests. Although I support the use of well-designed assessments, even test critics should take pause before endorsing the school’s teachers. While some education observers have been quick to applaud the Garfield teachers for resisting the excessive testing of their students, the truth is much more complicated. However, it requires digging into the weeds about testing to really understand why the Garfield action is so problematic.

When I was teaching fourth grade, there were two standardized assessments I gave to my students: the California State Test (CST), a summative assessment, and the MAP, a formative assessment. For those not keyed into standardized test jargon, a summative assessment tests if a student has met end-of-year or end-of-unit goals, while a formative assessment tests the student’s progress towards those goals.

The differences between the two tests ran deeper than just classification. When taking the CST, my students encountered a long paper test that required several weeks to complete. Because the CST results came in after the school year was over, I could not use them to improve my teaching for the students that took the test. The MAP, on the other hand, is an hour-long computer assessment that provides results immediately. While the CST can only tell whether a student is performing at their current grade level, the MAP offers richer information about which grade level a student is performing at in distinct areas. For instance, one of my fourth graders might test at a sixth grade level in grammar knowledge but only a third grade level in reading comprehension.

One can see why teachers might prefer the MAP to the CST. I definitely did: a quick computer assessment about individual student progress in real-time—not just a snapshot of student performance at the end of the year—was tremendously helpful as I planned out future lessons.

So - which assessment did the Garfield teachers choose to oppose?

It was the MAP that drew the ire of the Garfield teachers. Even as they agreed to continue to administer Washington’s version of the CST, the Garfield teachers marched into the national spotlight to put a stop to a standardized test that actually informed and supported instruction. As a former teacher, I found this selective opposition confusing, so I looked to a recent statement issued by one of the teachers that explained the faculty’s decision to oppose the MAP.

In a wide-ranging op-ed in The Seattle Times, the Garfield teachers offered several arguments in defense of their decision. One argument posed a glaring ad hominem attack against an administrator involved in the decision to use the MAP and another seemed to fault the MAP for failing to include sections on student courage and integrity. Others can address the wisdom of these points. However, the teachers also offered two substantial criticisms of the MAP itself worth addressing.

1) We will not administer the MAP because it tests students on content outside the current-year standards. The Seattle Times column breathlessly described “teachers who have looked over the shoulders of students taking the test [that] can tell you that it asks questions students are not expected by state standards to learn until later grades.” To a reader not familiar with how formative assessments such as the MAP work, this seems like a glaring flaw of the test.

However, the fact that the MAP gives questions beyond grade level isn’t just true, it’s one of the main strengths of the exam. The MAP is intended to provide information on student progress—it can show whether a student is at, above or below grade level. If a student is performing above grade level, the MAP reflects this by posing more challenging questions. It would be more concerning if an adaptive assessment did not do this.

2. We will not administer the MAP because students do not care about their performance, since it does not factor into their grades or ability to graduate. Take a step back and consider this argument in context. In one breath, the Garfield column criticized the use of high-stakes exams and, in the next, faults the MAP for failing to carry properly severe repercussions to motivate students. One cannot have it both ways.

The Garfield teacher action, then, is not a revolt on standardized testing as a whole but a revolt against just one standardized exam - an exam that actually helps to guide instruction. After all, the Garfield students will still take the Washington summative assessment at the end of the year. Why did the Garfield teachers make such a strange choice as they took their courageous stand?

As it turns out, there is another distinguishing fact about the MAP the Garfield teachers barely mentioned in their column. Unlike Washington’s other standardized state exams, administrators use the MAP when determining evaluations of Garfield teachers. One can question, then, whether the noble stand against the MAP exam really has much to do with standardized tests at all.

What the Garfield teacher protest really represents isn’t entirely clear, but it is almost certainly not an attempt to defend students from over-testing—no matter how much they wrap themselves in that banner. And while there are important discussions to be had over the use of standardized assessments, commentators should recognize that the Garfield teacher protest is not the contribution it has been made out to be.

Mac LeBuhn is an assistant policy analyst at Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Before joining DFER, Mac was a fourth grade teacher at Rocketship Si Se Puede, a charter school in San Jose, CA. He became interested in education policy through internships at the offices of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston. Read more about Mac here.