Lessons from the Garfield Boycott of the Standardized Test

Update from Jesse Hagopian on 5/13/2013: “Huge win for the #MAPtestboycott today! The Superintendent of the Seattle Public Schools just announced MAP test is not required for high schools next year! We just showed the power of withholding your labor and making demands!…Now we press on to get the MAP test eliminated for all the Seattle Schools.” Read announcement in the Seattle Times. Check the Solidarity with Garfield Teachers Facebook page for updates.

Dialogue in DC with Jesse Hagopian about the Scrap the MAP Campaign

Two generations of activists: SNCC veteran Frank Smith (founder and director of the African American Civil War Museum) and teacher activist Jesse Hagopian.

As public school students in DC braced themselves for another round of the  DC Comprehensive Assessment System (DC CAS) test, Seattle teacher Jesse Hagopian spoke to 60 DC teachers and students about the Garfield test boycott. Teaching for Change, the DC Social Justice Teaching Network, and Haymarket Books hosted Hagopian’s presentation on the “Scrap the MAP” campaign at the African American Civil War Museum on April 15, 2013.

Garfield High School has become the latest battleground for high-stakes testing with its January 2013 boycott of the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) exam, with teachers including Jesse Hagopian leading the charge. [Read an article by Hagopian about the boycott in Rethinking Schools.]

“Testing is the lifeblood of the corporate education model,” Hagopian told the audience. “Reducing students and teachers and all their many talents into tiny data points is how they get away with closing schools. They label your school a failure.”

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Jesse Hagopian shares the story of the Garfield boycott with teachers and students.

The teachers at Garfield and other critics say that the MAP exam doesn’t reflect the curriculum being taught and is improperly used to measure teacher effectiveness, among other significant charges. In addition to learning about the test and the boycott, the participants engaged in small group dialogues about improving or resisting high-stakes testing. Those present discussed meaningful assessments and what schools could use as an alternative to these tests.

Participants asked Hagopian for tips to help them mobilize in their own schools and about the role of parents and students.

A teacher, parent, and student from Wilson SHS confer about the implications of the Garfield boycott for testing in DC, along with a teacher from Woodson SHS.

The “Scrap the MAP” campaign began last December, when a veteran teacher at Garfield informed Hagopian in his role as the union representative that she would not be administering the MAP test. The rest of the staff determined she should not take the stand alone. Despite risking unpaid suspension, insubordination charges, and even their jobs, the entire faculty voted unanimously to boycott the test. Donations, gifts, and letters of support began to pour in from all over the country and even England—just as the district and superintendent began issuing mandates about the test and warnings about consequences. Former D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee weighed in with a Seattle Times op-ed, criticizing the campaign for “distract[ing] from what’s best for students.”

Undeterred, by the time the first test date rolled around in January, the student body government, the Parent-Teacher-Student Association, and two more Seattle schools had joined the boycott, backed by hundreds of opt-out letters from parents. Students who did not have opt-out letters showed their solidarity by invalidating their exams. Of the 810 tests that were supposed to be administered at Garfield, only about 100 were actually given, a majority of which had been invalidated.

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Participants discuss questions about testing, assessment, and learning before the formal presentation and dialogue.

At the end of the event, participants were encouraged to take the discussions back to their school communities and were asked to share their thoughts. Kimberly, a student at Capital City Public Charter School who attended the event with her mother, said:

“I don’t know why we do D.C. CAS. They never told me why; they just gave me the test. They’d take a month out of the year to have to learn some random topic for a one-day test, and they assess us on what they thought we’d know, not what we’re actually learning. It should test whether we can think and solve problems. I should know how to problem-solve instead of learning random facts. It’s a waste of time.”

There was a round of applause in agreement with Kimberly’s critique and insights. Now the challenge is how to turn those concerns into action. The lessons from Garfield provide ideas and inspiration.

Photos and story by Jazelle Hunt, Teaching for Change Communications Associate.