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Friday, February 8, 2013 - Page updated at 03:30 p.m.

Lynne K. Varner / Times editorial columnist
The high cost of wasted educational opportunity — now that’s worth a teacher protest

By Lynne K. Varner
Times editorial columnist

I remain unconvinced the Garfield High School teachers’ boycott of the Measures of Academic Progress test is anything more than adult hubris.

For one, nearly all Seattle Public Schools have begun administering the required test, despite differing views about its value. For another, the test is unlikely to survive as a ninth-grade requirement. The case to keep it is stronger for middle and elementary grades, but even there pilots of new tests by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium may yield better options.

The push for more sophisticated tests has good intent. But the boycott and its attendant protest rallies — designed to pressure Superintendent José Banda into making a decision a mere three months before he plans to anyway — is overkill.

I’ll give boycotters something to protest.

Let’s start with dismal news that African-American, Latino and Native American elementary students still lag white students in core subjects, such as math and reading. We know this from results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test given to fourth- and eighth-graders across the nation.

Sure, Washington state as a whole posts test scores above the national average on the NAEP, but that’s far from the case for brown children and those from low-income families. Here’s a chant: “Education, not academic stagnation!”

I’m a parent and I’ve also written about education long enough to become as frustrated as the Garfield teachers and parents. I’m frustrated that despite the $13 billion spent every two years on the K-12 system, students still graduate from high school who don’t read well or understand basic math.

Who’s going to take to the streets about that?

Seattle is a city that prides itself on progressive values but I see a regressive bent in some corners, particularly the obsession over education reforms.

I remember the outrage in 2011 when a Seattle high-school principal was fired from a school that had only 5 percent of African-American students, 16 percent of Latino students and 3 percent of bilingual students passing the district’s standardized math test.

The principal was reinstated and the furor died down. But I’ve wondered what happened to the students with the abysmal scores. Our attention waned because the school’s overall test scores are quite good.

How are those students surviving without basic math skills? Is their future what we would want for our own children?

Schools, teachers and parents are working harder than ever. I see it when I’m out reporting but I also see the efforts reflected in data. Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of college degrees going to blacks, Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders went up. That’s progress.

But I worry about high-school students and young adults because they are most likely to get caught on the wrong side of the growing mismatch between skills required for available jobs and the skills they actually have.

If the skills gap is not addressed, attention toward picket lines will soon be directed toward growing unemployment lines.

Critics of the MAP and other standardized tests point out their cost. They aren’t cheap. But neither is a poor education.

My next point puts this into context: Eliminating the achievement gap would have boosted by $240 million the earnings of currently working African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans, according to the Washington state Policy and Budget Center.

Protesting standardized tests is not so much wrong as it is misdirected.

The high cost of wasted educational opportunity is the bigger problem and far worthier of a rally or two.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is lvarner@seattletimes.com Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner


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