When new Seattle Public Schools (SPS) Superintendent Jose Banda was introduced last spring, a new era beckoned: no more of the cronyism that marked his predecessor’s regime; or the financial obtuseness that marred her predecessor; nor the willful obtuseness and contempt toward the concerns of parents, teachers, staff and students that has been a fixture of SPS leadership for much of the last two decades. 

With Banda things would be different.

Now Banda and his team are facing their first real crisis, and it’s like the old guard never left the building. (That would be the “Glass Palace,” the showy SODO administrative building erected a few years ago while many of the city’s aging schools went begging for repairs.)

On Jan. 10, a couple dozen Garfield High School teachers stood behind a podium and announced that the school’s teachers had voted unanimously not to give the district’s required Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test to their students. The school’s dean of testing backed them up. So did the student government. So did many of the school’s staff.

While the district was slow to respond, the district’s other schools have not been. Within two weeks, teachers at Orca K-8, the Center School and Chief Sealth International High School, as well as the Seattle Substitutes Association, had joined the boycott. 

Letters of support have come in from a number of other district schools, including Salmon Bay, Thornton Creek, Schmitz Park and Sanislo elementary schools, and Ballard, Roosevelt, Franklin and West Seattle high schools. 

The action — believed to be the first of its kind in the country by an entire school’s faculty — has drawn national attention and support from educators and anti-testing activists.

 

Going off the MAP

Garfield’s teachers and the newly formed “Scrap the MAP” group, drawn from all the participation schools, have taken pains to emphasize that they’re not against testing in general. They fully support, for example, the new statewide tests that replaced the widely loathed WASLs. Their issue is specifically the MAP, which SPS gives three times a year in addition to the state tests, ostensibly to track student progress during the academic year. 

The MAP test was instituted four years ago by former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson; one of the scandals that undid her regime was the disclosure that she also sat on the board of the company, the Northwest Education Association (NWEA), that sells the tests to the district.

But the dubious origins of the MAP contract are the least of the test’s problems. These include:

•Test questions are not at all tied to the district- or state-mandated curricula and, at times, wildly grade-inappropriate — and affect students negatively (“I must be stupid”) when they’re confronted with test questions they can’t reasonably be expected to know in their grade;

•Because of this, teachers don’t use the results, and students, knowing that it counts nothing for their grades, don’t take the test seriously — yet, the results are used in SPS’s evaluations of teacher performance;

•Test results are allegedly strongly skewed against minority, immigrant, ESL, poor and disabled students;

•The tests take away substantially from classroom time and tie up access to schools’ library computers for weeks on end, three times a year, leaving students unable to use them for actual classroom work (librarians have also supported the boycott); and

•The NWEA’s own materials caution that expected student gains over the course of a year are within the MAP’s margin of error, and explicitly recommends not tying teacher evaluations to the results.

In short, the test is a complete waste of time and money, and counter-productive besides.

 

History repeating itself

These are not new concerns; they’ve been raised by teachers and parents repeatedly over the test’s history here, at the school board’s 2010 renewal of the MAP contract (still under Goodloe-Johnson) and privately since. 

So the district’s responses to the boycott have ranged from underwhelming to idiotic. Underwhelming: the district “needs time to work out a solution” to issues that have been raised since the test’s inception four years ago. 

Idiotic: it also had letters sent out to remind teachers that they can be suspended for refusing to give the test.

(Go ahead, suspend a school’s entire faculty, which the district’s substitute teachers are backing, and just try to hold classes. Explain to parents and the public how a boycott that’s protesting a test because it takes away from classroom time is going to be solved by shutting down classes for all of a school’s students. That’ll fix things.)

For years, on countless issues, the downtown leadership of Seattle Public Schools and far too many of its board members have been arrogant, complacent and oblivious to actual classroom needs. 

Now, a growing group of teachers, possibly at risk to their careers, is taking an unprecedented stand because they want Seattle schools to work better. 

The fact that they even feel they need to take such a step to make their point heard says volumes about just how little has changed so far at the Glass Palace.

GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on “Mind Over Matters” on KEXP 90.3 FM. To comment on this column, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.