Opting in for real learning

March 17, 2015

Schools across the country are seeing a rise in protest against the overuse of standardized tests in public education. From teachers who boycott the tests to parents and students who "opt out" of taking them, resistance to excessive testing has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years--and this spring looks like it will bring a new high score of resistance.

Jesse Hagopian is a teacher at Seattle's Garfield High School and editor of the book More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High Stakes Testing. In 2013, Hagopian and his fellow teachers at Garfield organized a historic boycott of the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test that boosted the profile of the movement nationwide. Hagopian talked to Danny Katch about the state of the struggle this year as schools head into testing season.

IT'S BEEN almost two years since you and your co-workers led the boycott of the MAP test in Seattle, an action which at that time was close to unprecedented. What has changed in the two years since then?

I THINK one of the biggest changes we've seen is an increased confidence of parents, students and teachers around the country--to assert themselves as experts in education over the amateurish billionaires when it comes to public education, and say that these are our communities, these are our classrooms, we actually know what's best for our schools, and we actually have some training in pedagogy and best practices in the classroom. Plus, as opposed to the testocracy, we've actually been to public schools and know what our children need.

I feel like this new movement asserting itself as experts in education is defying the corporate education reformers and the Astroturf organizations and consultant groups that they've brought in to tell us these tests are the key to improving education. Instead, we have an increased confidence of parents, students and teachers to take action on their beliefs and refuse the test in a way that's truly unprecedented in U.S. history.

Brooklyn parents speak out against high-stakes testing overtaking the education their kids deserve
Brooklyn parents speak out against high-stakes testing overtaking the education their kids deserve

When you look at the numbers of people participating in opt-out and boycott movements of these high-stakes tests, it's never been bigger. Some 67,000 parents in New York state alone refused to allow their children to take these harmful exams last spring.

We had the largest walkout against high-stakes tests in history, which happened in Colorado earlier this winter. We had thousands of students refusing to take the exit exams, and many hundreds rallying. That student walkout carried over to New Mexico, where nearly 1,000 students just walked out of the Common Core test, demanding that their education be more than a score.

THERE ARE some people who support Common Core, but disagree with the emphasis on high-stakes testing. What connection do you see between the implementation of Common Core and the overall agenda of corporate education reform?

I THINK that there have been some educators and some parents who have said, "It's the tests we object to, the new Common Core standards look generally okay." But I think that that sentiment is fading rapidly. In fact, more and more educators and parents and students across the country are coming to realize that the standards and the tests came shrink-wrapped together in one package, and that the standards are feeding the tests.

In some instances, the Common Core standards have replaced truly despicable scripted curriculum regimes in states where teachers have to actually read off a page, and in those instances, you can see why some people would look to them as a better alternative.

But there was a recent letter put out by dozens of early childhood educators and childhood psychologists that are damning in terms of the Common Core standards being inappropriate for the early grades. The standards are forcing reading down to kindergarten, something that has never been an expectation before. It truly is developmentally inappropriate. Students develop at different rates and to standardize across the board that students be reading at kindergarten is a detriment to early childhood education.

I think that the Common Core standards impact on the early grades is one of its worst flaws, and I think it's other main blind spot is its emphasis on what founder David Coleman calls "reading within the four corners" of the text.

He means close reading--he wants to take a piece of writing outside of the context that it was written in. He's not interested in how a student relates to that piece or how a student's background might connect with the writing. He wants to know what the literal meaning on the page is. But when you erase a child's background and why they might find the text important, you actually render it irrelevant to most of the students.

There's a push in Common Core to replace literature with what they call "informational texts," and I think that this is also very harmful to students' intellectual growth and their emotional growth. There are ways in which literature can tell us far more about our society than the informational texts. Take a book like 1984 by George Orwell. I think it explains a lot more about the American government than any news source today.

So the standards have some deep flaws because educators were not central to the process of creating the standards. In fact, parents were completely isolated from the process, as well as early childhood educators. Bill Gates' $200 million set the budget, and this unprecedented initiative from on high came to standardize our students' standards across the country in a way that hasn't improved education.

The last thing to say is that if they really wanted to improve education, we know that equitable funding of our schools would be the most important immediate step to take to ensure that all kids have the class sizes and the wraparound support that they would need to be successful.

YOU MENTIONED before the growth of the opt-out movement. Do you have a sense if the numbers of students opting out are going to be bigger this year or spreading to different parts of the country?

THERE'S NO question in my mind that this spring will again be the largest number of people refusing these high-stakes tests. New York had so many thousands opt out of the test already because they had the most experience with the Common Core tests, which purposefully have set the cut scores at levels that will fail 60 to 70 percent of kids across the nation. The cut scores were just set in Washington state. This is a political decision, made by politicians and not by educators.

And so as parents gain experience with these tests--as they see their students failing this arbitrary exam, and as more and more schools are labeled failing and students denied graduation--you're going to see a spike in the number of students opting out of the tests. As the high-stakes are rolled out, I think it will only further enrage parents who want their children nurtured, supported and intellectually stimulated--not just tested and punished.

TYPICALLY, POLITICIANS want to defend public services in their states. If anything, they want to set very low standards so that it can look like they are doing their jobs. And yet here, what you're saying is we have a situation where governors and elected officials are deliberately setting up the public schools to fail. Why do you think that is?

I THINK it's because the wealthiest people on the planet have told them that this is what they should do, and they respect their corporate masters.

The wealthiest people on the planet have decided a couple of things. One, that there's a lot of money to be made off of the public schools. It's a multibillion-dollar sector of the economy that they haven't gotten enough market share in. And so they see opportunities for getting into this market.

Test scores are critical to that process. Because it you can label a school failing with the test scores, you can shut it down, reopen it as a charter and get taxpayer funding for that charter, which can go to a board of directors or a private company.

If you can use the test to label all the children, then you can actually profit off of selling that exam. Which is why Pearson--which has one of the major contracts for this Common Core testing--is a $9 billion-a-year corporation. As these tests flourish, more and more testing companies are getting a piece of the pie, to the point where it's a $20-30 billion industry nationally.

You can see why when the American Federation of Teachers releases results from their survey that show students spend up to 50 hours a year now taking standardized tests, and up to 110 hours a year in direct test prep activities. I think there is a direct profit motive to be had around pushing more and more high-stakes exams.

And then there are some larger goals as well. One is to bust the teachers' unions. The teachers' unions are the biggest unions left in America after 40 years of neoliberal onslaught that has gutted organized labor in America. If you can make teachers' employment tenuous and tied to the fluctuation of test scores, then it's very easy to disrupt union protections on teacher jobs.

I think an even bigger goal of the testocracy has to be seen as part of an era defined by the Great Recession and by enormous wealth inequality. If you're the wealthiest people in the world, you have to figure out a way to maintain that level of inequality.

If people are building Occupy movements, if people are building Black Lives Matter movements, that's very disruptive to the process of maintaining vast inequality, and it's important for the testocracy to be able to reduce the intellectual process of teaching and learning to a single score and to the ability to eliminate wrong answer choices.

It's important to define wisdom as rote memorization rather than critical thinking because if our children are raised to question, if they're raised to seek collaboration and collective action, if our children are educated to be critical thinkers and collaborative and creative, they're going to come up with solutions to this wealth inequality. They're going to come up with strategies for building a civil rights movement to challenge racism.

IN ADDITION to the public education fight, you've been active in the Black Lives Matter movement. What connections do you see between the movement against corporate education reform and the fight against racism? And have you been seeing, in Seattle or elsewhere, these connections being made by organizations or protests?

ABSOLUTELY. IT'S important to understand the origins of high-stakes testing and standardized testing in our nation. Those origins have a truly ugly history in the eugenics movement of the early 1900s. Eugenics was a racist pseudo-science that was invented in order to try to prove white male supremacy, that the native-born were superior to immigrants, and that men were superior to women--a truly despicable ideology that has been thoroughly debunked by all scientific research.

It was men like Carl Brigham, one of the most renowned eugenicists in the country, who developed the SAT exam and used it as a gatekeeper to Princeton, where he taught. Lo and behold, this test that he developed was able to weed out poor people, women and students of color, and keep them from entering his university.

When you know that history, you understand how absurd the claim is today that these exams are the key to closing the "achievement gap." And it also shouldn't surprise you that people like W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP and one of the most important Black radical intellectuals in America, was one of the first voices to speak out against these standardized tests.

That's a tradition that I think the opt-out movement today would do well to reclaim and rediscover. I think the success of our movement against high-stakes tests really rests in its ability to connect and grow ties with the Black Lives Matter movement.

The testocracy says that everything it's doing--whether it's closing scores of schools or creating charters or pushing high-stakes exams--is in the service of Black children, when in fact we see their policies are devastating neighborhoods across the country, reducing these kids to scores and denying them many talents that our children have.

I think defining Black Lives Matter beyond just not wanting to be shot down in the streets is important. I think the BLM movement would do well to make this connection with the opt-out movement and say that part of making Black lives matter has to be making Black education matter: implementing anti-racist curriculum, moving to transformative and restorative justice models rather than zero tolerance, and ending high-stakes exams.

There's a recent study out of Boston University that shows the number-one outcome of the use of exit exams for high school graduation is increased incarceration rates. So these movements have a common interest and would both do well to unite.

We saw this happening recently in Portland, Oregon. I was on a book tour for More Than a Score, and spoke at Powell's Books with the president of the Portland Association of Teachers and one of the contributors to the book, Alexia Garcia. It was a packed house of over 200 people, but what was most inspiring to me is that Hands Up Portland, the BLM organization, showed up and was truly inspired by the history of Black intellectuals having been some of the most important early resisters to these high-stakes tests.

They took that energy into the school board meeting the next week and just shut it down. I think it's a great example of the power that communities can achieve when they connect these two issues.

THE OPT-out movement is unusual because it's a form of mass civil disobedience against the corporate education model, and at the same time, it's made up of thousands of individual families making decisions that often don't take the form of big visible protests--it's usually just people writing a letter to their school. What do you see as some of the strengths of this particular movement and some of its limitations?

I THINK that the more the movement is individualized in terms of "I'm going to just act on behalf of my own child," the weaker the movement will be. Parents definitely have the right and the need to act in their child's own best interest, and that's why there's such potential for explosion of this movement. But I also think the movement is strongest when collective action is taken.

We've seen this through mass walkouts in high schools. We've seen it when the Providence Student Union held a Make-the-adults-take-the-test demonstration. They got professionals to come and take the exams, and then held a press conference to release the results, showing that 60 percent of these professionals had failed the test and apparently weren't "career and college ready."

Or when entire schools have refused to administer the exam. Here in Seattle, Nathan Hale High School recently announced that it was going to refuse to administer the 11th grade Smarter Balance test, becoming the first school in the nation to collectively refuse a Common Core test.

Those actions of collective resistance have, I think, truly been the rallying point of this movement that inspired many hundreds and thousands more to join. It's through those collective struggles that parents, teachers and students have been able to have out important debates and discussions: What would we replace these tests with? Why are our schools being attacked?

And they begin to develop a deeper analysis that I think is going to be needed if this movement is going to be able to defeat the richest people who have ever lived.

IT'S CLEAR that in the last couple years, public education activists have been able to change the national conversation from what used to be almost completely uncritical media coverage of corporate education reform. And yet for the most part, the attacks on public education have continued. What progress do you think has been made, and where do you think the movement needs to go?

WHEN WE boycotted the MAP test at Garfield High School, teachers there were threatened with a 10-day suspension without pay. Not only did the suspension not happen, but the test was actually scrapped, and at the end of the year, the superintendent announced that the test would no longer be mandatory at the high school level. So that was a resounding victory for the movement.

But since then, the MAP test has been replaced with the Smarter Balance test. And even though public opinion has shifted dramatically--according to a recent Gallup poll, over 50 percent of the country now says these tests aren't helpful to education--the testocracy is moving full steam ahead with further implementation of more and more high-stakes exams.

It's important to say that the other side has softened its rhetoric. Even Bill Gates came out favoring a two-year moratorium on tying teacher evaluation to these new Common Core tests, and that got translated into Education Secretary Arne Duncan declaring a one-year moratorium, which is a partial victory. But that's in the context of a bipartisan consensus in the U.S. government to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, with its requirement of annual testing.

We've seen many different localized victories, like Castle Bridge Elementary School in New York City, where a mass boycott by some 90 percent of parents was able to stop the use of that test. But on a national level, they are continuing to push these tests because of the important profits and strategic interests they represent. This movement will have to grow dramatically in numbers and in militancy to have a decisive effect on national policy.

FROM ARNE Duncan to Rahm Emanuel in Chicago to Andrew Cuomo in New York, some of the leading politicians pushing these attacks on public education are members of the Democratic Party. In New York last year, Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones got unprecedented support for their Green Party gubernatorial campaign from a number of teachers union locals and progressive education groups. Is there growing dissatisfaction with the Democrats within this movement, and do you see a possibility of future political challenges that are outside the two-party system?

I THINK it would be important to build that political alternative outside the two-party system, and I think that teachers have increasingly been fed up with seeing their supposed allies in the Democratic Party continually push education policy that is anti-teacher and pro-high-stakes testing.

There's a level of anger there that has yet to be tapped into. Unfortunately, the teachers' unions remain completely wedded to the Democratic Party, regardless of how many promises the politicians break and how many attacks are led by those politicians on the union and its members. The leaderships of those unions continue to support Democrats, who are pro-corporate reform.

So I think an important next phase of this movement would be organizing educators and leaders in the movement against high-stakes testing to look for alternatives outside of the two-party system that are truly progressive and have children's best interests in mind.

That kind of political alternative will also have to look to issues outside of education, because you can't build education on a foundation of justice if you're spending trillions of dollars to bomb the Middle East. That money should be going to afterschool programs, to lower class sizes and to feeding our children.

You can't build an education system on a foundation of justice if you're deporting undocumented children and their families, and you can't build a system of justice when you have tax policies that favor the wealthy and a criminal justice system that incarcerates unprecedented numbers of African Americans and other people of color.

So I think we need to look to political alternatives that both support public education and see it in the context of the broader social issues facing our country.

Transcription by Sarah Levy

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