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Originally published January 21, 2013 at 8:00 PM | Page modified January 21, 2013 at 8:12 PM

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Teachers’ test boycott draws growing support

Support is growing for Garfield High teachers in their boycott of a district-required test. Seattle Public Schools officials, while saying the test has value, also are acknowledging that some of the teachers’ concerns have merit.

Seattle Times education reporter

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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.

On Monday, they received a statement of support signed by more than 60 educators and researchers, including well-known authors Jonathan Kozol, Diane Ravitch and Noam Chomsky.

Eleven teachers from ORCA K-8 and dozens of ORCA parents joined the boycott last week, and some teachers at Salmon Bay K-8 may soon do the same. Teachers at a number of other schools have sent letters of support, as have Garfield parents and students, the Seattle Student Senate, and a number of other local and national parent and educator groups.

District officials say the protesting teachers have some misconceptions about the MAP, a set of computer-adaptive exams the district has been using for the past five years to measure math and reading skills.

They say the MAP is a reliable, valuable test that helps teachers track student progress throughout the school year.

There’s a reason why millions of students across the nation are taking MAP tests, said Eric Anderson, the district’s director of research, assessment and evaluation.

But officials also acknowledge that some of the teachers’ concerns have merit and will be discussed as part of a long-planned review of all district tests this spring.

Outcry for a better test

The protesting teachers have many reasons for why they dislike the MAP — everything from the challenge of getting students to take it seriously to the fact that, for ninth-graders, the test’s margin of error is as big as the number of points a typical student is expected to gain. But all agree they want something better for their students and also for themselves. Because they distrust the MAP results, they don’t like the fact that the test can affect the job reviews of many teachers.

Eells, who has earned a prestigious National Board Certification, said the biggest issue is the lack of useful information the tests yield. She gets better data, she said, from her own tests and by sitting down with students one-on-one.

With the MAP, she said, she gets a long list of scores, but limited information about where to go from there.

To her, it seems that the MAP mostly covers concrete, measurable skills, which she cares about less than teaching students how to think, write and express themselves well.

“I am willing to have my craft looked at and evaluated,” she said. “But this isn’t the way to do it.”

She feels so strongly that she’s willing to get fired — an unlikely scenario, but one she’s ready to face.

Focus on skill levels

The MAP exams are different from state tests that teachers also are required to give.

Like state tests, the MAP tests are multiple-choice, but they are adaptive, which means no two students answer all the same questions. When students get one question right, they get a harder one, while a wrong answer leads to an easier question. The idea is to find where students’ skills lie rather than just determine whether a fourth-grader can pass a fourth-grade test.

Seattle schools have the choice of giving the MAP reading and math tests twice or three times a year. Nearly two-thirds of elementary schools choose three, but most middle and high schools do not.

Each MAP test takes about an hour for most students to complete, but with so many students taking it, the test can tie up some school libraries or computer labs for weeks.

Teachers get students’ scores within a few days so they can use them to adjust what they’re teaching. They don’t see the test questions or students’ answers, but they do get a list of topics the test covers, and an indication of how students did on each of them.

“MAP is not the singular solution to all problems,” said John Cronin, who directs the research center associated with the organization that created the MAP, the Northwest Evaluation Association. “Great classroom assessments are needed, too.”

While the main purpose of the MAP exams is to monitor progress, the district also uses the results to help screen students for remedial classes, to determine which math classes they should take, and to assess whether they should be encouraged to apply for the district’s gifted program.

MAP also is one of two types of exams used to calculate a student growth rating for some teachers — mostly those who teach reading and math. Under the district’s new teacher-evaluation system, those ratings aren’t an official part of a teacher’s evaluation, but if growth is low, that triggers a closer look at his or her performance.

Multiple measures

District administrators say they decided to buy the MAP because they wanted a third way to look at student’s academic progress in addition to state exams and the classroom tests developed by teachers individually or in groups.

Michael Tolley, the district’s interim assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said he thinks it takes at least three different types of data to make good decisions about students.

The district has cut back on training teachers in how to interpret MAP results, which is one reason Tolley and other officials think some teachers may not realize what the tests can provide.

Anderson, the research, assessment and evaluation director, acknowledges that the value of the MAP starts to diminish as students enter high school, especially students who are at grade level or above. For that reason, he said, the district already has stopped giving the MAP math test to ninth-graders who already have passed algebra.

This spring, as the district reviews its entire testing system, Anderson said, officials will look at whether all ninth-graders should continue to take the reading part of the MAP. They also may look at switching to a different ninth-grade math test, he said, one that is still part of MAP but focuses more closely on algebra.

Garfield teachers welcome the review but plan to stick to their boycott.

Their discontent is not new, they say. They’ve raised questions about the test for years and hope the district now will finally listen.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com. On Twitter: @LShawST

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