An Op-Ed by Guest Contributor Jesse Hagopian:

There is a lot of talk in well-financed education reform circles about “closing the achievement gap” – the difference in academic performance between more affluent white children and underprivileged kids of color. Plagiarizing phrases from the Civil Rights movement, these politically-connected reformers talk of a “revolution” in education accountability and claim to be building a high-stakes testing “movement” to measure the needs of students who have traditionally been left behind. Education Secretary Arne Duncan even referred to the opening of the film Waiting for “Superman”– which advocates charter schools and demonizes teachers’ unions in part for opposing the accountability of testing–as a “Rosa Parks moment.”

Cribbing from these reformers, The Seattle School District, in its most recent contract negotiations with the teacher’s union, the Seattle Education Association, pushed through a provision mandating the rating of teachers based on their students’ test scores.

But can these tests improve learning and teaching?

While there can be no doubt our schools need important changes in order to meet the needs of all children, the truth about standardized tests is that they are a better indicator of a student’s zip code than a student’s aptitude. That’s because the wealthier, and predominately whiter, districts score better on tests. This is not a reflection of the intelligence of wealthier, mostly white students verses that of lower-income students of color, but of the advantages that wealthier children have—books in the home, parents with more time to read to them, private tutoring, access to test-prep agencies, coming to school healthy, well-fed and more focused, to name a few.

For these reasons, the achievement gap is better described as an opportunity gap.

As University of Washington education professor Wayne Au has written, “Looking back to its origins in the eugenics moment, standardized testing provided…ideological cover for the social, economic and education inequalities the test themselves help maintain.”

Standardized testing has from the very beginning been a tool to rank people, not to remove the barriers needed to achieve equality; testing cannot cure education anymore than a thermometer can cure a fever.

Moreover, the recent experience of high-stakes testing in New York City—long considered the national model for improving student achievement by making test scores the cornerstone of school accountability—demonstrates just how broken a thermometer such test scores really are. With the late July release of the state test results for 2010, New York’s claims of making “historic gains” for children came crashing down. Results from the newly adjusted test showed the proficiency rate in English fell from 69 percent last year down to 42 percent, while only 54 percent reached grade level in math, down from 82 percent. These wild fluctuations in scores reveal standardized testing as a profoundly inaccurate measure of student learning.

Still worse is the example of the public schools in Washington, D.C. Under Michele Rhee’s tenure as superintendent school reformers often bragged that her hard-line approach to fighting the teachers’ union, her emphasis on charter schools, and her devotion to standardized testing had raised achievement for the district. That is until USA Today broke the story that a campaign of cheating had taken place where someone–under intense pressure to show Rhee’s tactics were working–erased wrong answers and changed them to correct answers on the Districts standardized test.

Ignoring what today is vast research showing the invalidity of standardized testing as an accurate measure of student learning, the Seattle School District is quickly moving to remake our schools in the image of a production line where simple input-values are used to measure the workers’ (teachers) efficiency at producing commodities (students). Under the former Seattle Schools superintendent, Maria Goodloe-Johnson, the District adopted a test called the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP). After the District’s adoption of the test—with a $4.3 million price tag—it was revealed that Goodloe-Johnson sat on the board of the company that produced the test, a conflict of interest that should disqualify the use of the test in Seattle. Taking a bold step against the MAP test, the Seattle Education Association recently passed the following resolution:

Whereas testing is not the primary purpose of education…Whereas the MAP was brought into Seattle Schools under suspicious circumstances and conflicts of interest…Whereas the SEA has always had the position of calling for funding to go to classroom and student needs first…Be it Resolved that…the MAP test should be scrapped and/or phased out and the resources saved be returned to the classroom.

Teachers, parents, and students know a holistic education includes teaching children creativity, civic courage, leadership, teamwork and social responsibility—skills that can’t be neatly quantified by standardized tests and will cease to be taught if educators’ jobs are tied to high-stakes tests. Moreover, in this era of economic recession and ongoing war, it would seem all the more urgent to develop students who can think beyond filling-in-the-bubble to come up with innovative ideas to big societal problems.

As teachers, union members, parents and civil rights advocates we offer an opposing plan to provide a quality education for all and to close the opportunity gap: fully fund and equalize school resources, reinstate the recently abolished “Department of Race and Equity” to help ensure culturally relevant pedagogy and assessment, lower class size to provide the individualized attention that students deserve, and support the most effective form of assessment that has yet to be devised—one that can adjust to every child, evaluate results quickly, and make appropriate changes in instruction—the human educator.

The mantle of the Civil Rights movement does not belong to those who propose relegating students and teachers to the back of the education system with unscientific, curriculum narrowing tests, but rather to those who refuse to give up their position at the front of the struggle to eliminate the inequities that result in achievement disparities.


– Jesse Hagopian teaches at Garfield High School and is a founding member of the Social Equality Educators, a group of progressive union teachers in the Seattle Public School district. Hagopian will be joining a panel of social justice education advocates for the forum:

“Achievement Gap or Opportunity Gap: Fighting Racism in the Public Schools”

Thursday, May, 19th, 2011—7:00 pm
Mt. Zion Baptist Church
1634 19th Ave.
Seattle, WA 98122

Featuring: James Bible, president of the King Co. NAACP

Wayne Au, editor of Rethinking Schools

Olga Addae, President of the Seattle Education Association

Dora Taylor, Parents Across America, Founding Member

Check out the Facebook page, Acheivement Gap or Opportunity Gap? Fighting Racism in Public Schools.