Teachers Refuse to Give Standardized Exams at Seattle Schools: There is more than one way to skip accountability.

“..Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain..”         


           Strategically, this is a brilliant move on the part of Teacher’s Unions; and why not? When the “tone” of the battle is dramatically going against you, what better time to throw “caution to the wind”. There are times when the only play you have, is to throw a pass into the end zone and hope someone on your team is somehow able to catch it (hey, its super bowl timeJ).  This move is fraught with tremendous dangers, and that is perhaps why the Seattle Superintendent is moving in such a thoughtfully cautious way. This “play” could work to totally dismantle the standardized testing system, too quickly and without planning. This Seattle situation is dangerous for the following reasons: State and school districts have been granted major sustaining funding (Federal, State and private) based on some relationship to standardized testing. Standardized assessments are linked to many other activities in public education (i.e. labor contracts, funding based on student performance on these exams; this includes monitoring special populations of students simply showing up to take the exam). Without standardized testing what happens to all of these evaluation tools; and their connected funding criteria? (Some like special education is coded in law). What if the taking and passing of these exams are requirements for promotion, or in the case of High School, graduation? State Education Departments and Legislatures would need to “race and scramble” to change promotion and graduation laws, before the end of the school year (doubt that can happen). If standardized exams are one of the criteria used to evaluate teachers and administrators (in present contract agreements); an educator terminated, not granted a “step increase”, not promoted  for “poor standardized test results”; would have a strong argument for appeal if similar colleagues were not affected , or held “safe-harmless” because their schools did not take the standardized exams. Teachers are smart, (they are teachers!) they may say: “Hey, I will take the 10 day suspension without pay, if I can keep my job!” Further, an entire teaching staff refusing to give a standardized exam is an uncharted disciplinary topic; who knows how hearing officers may decide. If you just don’t do that one “thing”, and do every other part of your job well, is that a dereliction of duty?   As a former superintendent I have more than once experienced “strange” rulings on the part of these independent hearing officers.  And even if the school district “wins”, do you fire or suspend the entire teaching staff in the middle of the year, and cause educational havoc (folks calling for the superintendent to fire or suspend the staff, have no idea what that would mean for a school’s learning environment) The superintendent is playing it right; bring water not gasoline to the situation. He must find a “diplomatic” way for those teachers to “back down”. He should make this “event” an opening opportunity for a productive, and thoughtful school district discussion: “How do we transform standardized assessment into something that could actually support instructional practice; and also hold schools accountable to a standard?”

How did we get here?

               The accountability through standardized testing train had already left the station with the birth of NCLB (and all of its State based offspring tied to state-wide exams); this train was fueled by corrupt out of focus school boards, union contracts that basically said that if you just don’t kill a student, you can keep your job; in NYC we have the infamous “rubber rooms”; where teachers can collect years of salary for doing nothing, as they await the contract driven  disciplinary process that would get dusted in a race with a snail. The public correctly analyzed when looking at school budgets, and then looking at the “product” (academic achievement and graduation rates) that they were not getting any bang for their hard earned tax bucks.  Here we had a profession unlike no other, where failure was placed solely on the backs of the customer, the parent and the students. No teacher in the school building was held accountable for students not learning, no one lost pay, and no one lost their job. The public was told the students were too poor; too non-English; too few positive role models in their community; too Black, too Latino; too many living with parents without college degrees; too many without two parents; too many without any parents; the message: “send us perfect kids, and then we can successfully educate them” and of course: “Send us more and more money”. The public was not fooled. The problem emerged when (which is why we teach students History) the public and elected officials panicked and responded in not a well thought out way. Ill-informed “Reform” advocates where championed and put in charge; this  infusion of people who lacked pedagogical knowledge and history would transform testing into a tool very different from its original purposes: (1) which was to guide teachers and administrators as to what methodologies they need to employ to support academic improvement. Testing in itself is not bad (want to go to an untested medical doctor or dentist, live in a home designed by untested architect?) I wrote a paper on the use of high stakes testing in motivating and sharpening instructional techniques long before the emergence of the “new reformers-testing fan club” (This year in School Science 1990 Assessment in the Service of Instruction – AAAS, “Assessing An Accelerated Science Program for African- American and Hispanic Elementary and JHS Students Through Advanced Science Examinations” – Johnson, Michael A., pp. 267-2 872, 1991) One of the arguments I made was that the standardization of high expectations and content knowledge helps those students for whom high expectations is not a given; It alerted teachers to “gaps” in student content and/ or experiential knowledge, it provide students with an opportunity to know who was their competition, and the rules of that competitive  “game”. (2) The second important role of standardized testing was to provide equity of expectations and content standards inside of schools, and across schools of students from different social-economic-cultural-disability (or ability) backgrounds. But the new view of testing was that it would serve as a “hammer” that could drive poorly performing educators out of the system. But because “testing” was not originally designed for that purpose, it was doomed to fail, not just students, but as a school improvement strategy. For sure, many teachers and principals lost their positions; but academic performance still did not significantly improve; and many educators realized that a quicker, safer and easier way to raise students’ scores was simply to cheat. These educators kept their jobs (and very often earned monetary bonuses) and many of the leaders on the district level received laudatory headlines and national recognition. The public and policy makers were happy, and wanted more, and they simply ignored the obvious lack of evidence that students were improving academically. It is a little like the idea of “school closings” as an academic improvement plan; the public, press and policy makers feel something is happening, because something is, well… happening. They have never stop to think that just simply moving an under-performing student to now a more crowded school of other under-performing students does not serve the arriving, or presently situated students well. In fact it does more harm than good; since the receiving struggling school now must contend with a larger cohort of struggling students (the more aware and aggressive parents having moved their children to Charter schools) Well this myth of “do something, we will worry about if it works later”, was also true of “testing results penalties as a tool of school improvement”; people were getting fired, it look good, felt good; but the fact that it did no good for students did not matter. It gave the public what it wanted, the illusion of “change”; it give them “bread and circuses!”


The testing lion comes home to roost!

              The accountability hammer has not come down completely (but it will) on teacher unions because those same “new testing reformers” leading the charge are so ill-informed and ingenuous as to the real purpose and role of student assessment. Outside of the punitive factor you can’t make a case for assessments to be used in this way; except as a cynical tool to commoditize and privatize public education. But what the “reformers” lack in pedagogy, is made up in good public relations, and so let the games continue at the expense of children. But this small testing “revolt” could invite a full-fledged rebellion that could quickly spin out of control; and further drive the public’s shrinking confidence in our profession in a negative direction.  Unfortunately there is no reasoned voice of responsible standardized testing that can speak in the larger public square; that space is monopolized by selfish, stubborn teacher unions; and their badly misinformed evil testing obsessed twins. I read an African proverb once that said: “when the elephants fight the grass suffers”.  The students of color, students with ESL parents, poor students in general will suffer if we stay on the present testing as hammer path; or if we end up with little or no standardized assessment accountability. Then the poorest and least politically powerful students will be relegated to a lower expectations, and academic standards status.