The People We Should Listen To


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In a recent article, Celine Coggins, chief executive officer and founder of Teach Plus, writes that the recent Seattle Testing Boycott opened the door for a constructive discussion in the debate over standardized testing. She’s right, and it’s a conversation that has been needed for a while. If Jesse Hagopian and the other teachers at Garfield High accomplish nothing else, they deserve our thanks for putting this conversation squarely on the map (ouch).

For her part, Coggins argues that the Garfield movement provided the thin end of the wedge for anti-testing advocates who have opportunistically hustled the conversation toward unproductive corners.  She refers to the non-testing argument as a “political non-starter, as it should be.” Perhaps, but, just as in the debate over wider school reform, I am not sure that those who Coggins refers to as “anti-testing” really are (as stated in their position paper on the subject, the Chicago Teachers Union is clearly against corporate methodology and high-stakes standardized testing, not formative or curriculum-based assessment) nor do I think that both sides have had their voices equally heard–especially in policy-making circles. Fairness aside, as PJ Caposey observed recently through the metaphor of the Ravitch v. Rhee showdown, no matter how polarized the opposing sides of the ed reform debate seem to be, we would do well to hear both sides out.

So let’s hold this conversation. As Coggins states, “If we want to turn this moment into a big win for kids, teachers are the ones who should lead that conversation. The rest of us must listen to what they’re saying.” Sure. Let’s listen to teachers, but what about the students? Let’s say we held an informed conversation with students on the testing debate. Where would they stand? How would what they’re saying compare to what teachers are saying? And shouldn’t we listen to them too?

Luckily, I have the support of an international school with a nationally and socially diverse student body that has allowed me to design a “21st Century Advisory” called Academic Leadership that directly addresses learning, leadership and social engagement (I have written about this course here). Deciding to capitalize on the class’s energy and enthusiasm, I wrote a blog post in response to the Seattle Testing Boycott started by Hagopian and his fellow teachers at Garfield High. My students responded vigorously. –As should come as a surprise to no one, students never balk at discussing their educational paths and futures.

To kick off the conversation, I borrowed an idea Will Richardson used in one of his sessions at the recent Innovate 2013 conference I attended. Richardson asked us to consider the baby, the bathwater and the fresh water we want to bring into education. It was a simple and effective way of structuring an analysis of the state of education and postulating current and future needs. The assembled teachers and administrators, largely members of the “21st Century Learning” choir, comprised lists that would surprise no one–especially in terms of standardized testing.

  • Baby: teachers, school buildings, formative assessments, rigor, etc. 
  • Bathwater: standardized testing (almost universally), classrooms, distinct content areas (v. interdisciplinary approaches), etc.
  • Fresh water: more social media, individualized instruction, portfolios, etc.

After their initial reading and exploration of anticipatory materials (linked below) my students brainstormed their own responses. Their group boardwork is displayed in the photo gallery above, highlights below:

  • Baby: teachers, deadlines, guidance/counseling, teacher authority, handwriting (Weren’t expecting that one, were you?)
  • Bathwater: standardized testing (again, almost universally), “normal,” non-dynamic thinking, memorization, learning at the same pace,” etc.
  • Fresh water: more social/digital media,more stimulation, independent learning, schools without classrooms, etc.

It’s frankly obvious that if we put the students in charge of education policy, all of us pundits on all sides of the education reform debate would be out of work (except for the teaching, perhaps). It is also obvious that, when asked, students don’t starting chanting lines from “The Wall” and calling for the end of testing, the death of schooling and “teacher leave them kids alone”, full stop. Student responses are refreshingly measured, thoughtful and…quite similar to those of their teachers.

And both groups question the validity of standardized testing.

My students come from around the world and live in Brazil, but they realize that what is decided in the US education system impacts them just as much as it does the kids in Chicago and Seattle. Our students actually take the MAP twice a year–decreased from three weeklong sittings a year in 2011 due to community consensus. That’s important: community consensus. Just like in Seattle, it’s not only teachers and students who are challenging high-stakes testing, it’s stakeholders across the board. A selection of my students’ (unedited) contributions to the ed reform debate–via the testing boycott– is collected below. If we are going to have this conversation, let’s start by being honest about where the people we “must listen to” stand on standardization.


Personally I do not have anything against the Measure of Academic Progress, but in my opinion MAP tests aren´t the best way to do this…we lose a lot of class time by writing these tests to find out how much I progressed throughout my “academic career”. I would rather learn new material or discuss a reading passage in English, than using my time to figure out my reading level. MAP scores don’t reflect the progress a student made, they measure how much a student can remember.

I go to school, because I want to learn something, what I can use for my future, instead of finding out how much I progressed during the last years. MAP testing encourages students to focus on what they already know, instead of what they can learn.

Sophie, 14, Germany

As students rush through the test and compete with one another to try to finish the computer-based exam first, insipid and not expected grades reach teachers and give out some frustration. Why are schools implementing a test that is not valuing a student’s learning profile?

Natasha, 15, Brazil

Standardized testing is a concept that will eventually descend into oblivion. Student creativity, independence and uniqueness are characteristics being emphasized every time more by society and schools, skills that are not tested by these sorts of tests. Each person learns through a different manner and has different academic strengths, strengths that are not properly evaluated of valued by any of these tests. The future lies in essay writing and personalized tests, designed to assess the different perspectives students have to add to a college or an institution rather than their ability to memorize dates and events. Who knows if by the time our younger relatives get to high school is we will still be using these types of meaningless tests?

Isabela K., 15, Brazil

If we don’t know it, we don’t try. The test is not for a grade or helping you get into a good college; most of us students have no idea that the test reflects much about anything. The ones that do, however, might try to excel and give it their best shot for the sake of their teachers and themselves; yet again not all students have a particularly loving relationship with their teacher. Who knows if some students actually try to fail out of hatred for their superior?

Nicole, 15, USA

In my own opinion the MAP Testing should stop, I mean, we certainly don’t need it. We write enough tests for each subject, so why should we write an extra one, that steals class time, and the teachers kind of compare us with students in the USA. So why not stop it? That indeed is a good question; and really, I can’t answer it. Maybe we can’t just stop it because the creators of the Standardized test won’t have a job because they charged $7Million for New York State…

Inés, 14, Germany

My obvious first response to [the Seattle Test Boycott] was something like “this is awesome!”. If they managed to get rid of standardized tests my life would be so much better, because there is honestly almost nothing I dislike more than having to write an essay about what my ideal garden would look like in less than two hours. However, after realizing that wouldn’t be enough to post on my academic blog – emphasis on academic – and that I would have to give this topic a lot more deep thought, I came to the conclusion that I do agree with the teachers at Garfield. In my opinion, academic portfolios give us a much more accurate representation of a students’ profile than any test. While tests might be important in order to measure how much content a student has retained, I find that scores don’t exactly reflect how well a student knows the content, because they could have just gone over the textbook five minutes before the bell and memorized as much as they could manage (which I am totally guilty of doing). So, really, I feel like tests reflect how much a student has retained over the fifteen minutes of reading they did on the bus, while half asleep, rather than over the course of the weeks that the subject was being taught.

Sofia,14, Brazil

When talking about possible solutions, some suggest getting rid of tests in general, and instead keeping a regular portfolio where the students would gather year-round work, keeping track of their constant development. I, however, believe tests are necessary for the benefit of the students, for it is the only viable way to fully check if a taught subject is fully understood or if it needs more review. It is both the students’ and the teachers’ job to ensure a concrete understanding of what is taught in the classroom, and Garfield’s High School called-for boycott is doing nothing but demanding circumstances that will make those conditions ideal. In a time where individuality is slowly being taken away from us, we need to remember that not everyone is the same – whether it be in or out of the classroom – and begin to build around that.

Maria Clara, 15, Brazil

I personally like the following video because I was recently in a public school in Florida, did the FCAT and remember a class talk about it. The standard to pass was raised to 4 of 6, when last year was 3 of 6. I was shocked to learn that, because they lowered the standard and changed it again. How fair is that? Where is the standard?

Juliana, 15, Brazil

My views can be explained with the quote: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water”. I truly believe that standards should be thrown out the window, together with the MAP Test and the bath water, but also remembering to keep the baby. Even though, when it comes to test taking, standards are not essential, some have to be kept in order for schools and students to know what should be learned, with the purpose of getting pupils worldwide with the same basic knowledge. However, besides that ‘basic’ knowledge that should be taught, I believe that students should follow their own pace when learning, since it will provide them with a greater intake of information. This would allow them to study subjects that interest them further, while also allowing them to understand the topics they have a harder time with in a slower pace, in order to fully ‘digest’ the challenging information. This is where the standards would come in handy. Instead of allowing students to learn only the subjects that interest them, they would be expected to master the ‘basic’ subjects, yet they would be able to take their time and learn in a way they are able to better understand.

Alice, 15, Brazil

Schools – not only North American ones, but worldwide – should reconsider their academic curriculums and withdraw their focus from grades to actual academic progress, which will only be effective when students know that they will be tested for contents they know. This can be done through portfolios such as the online ePortfolio adopted at my school, and, obviously, through testing, because the need to know if learning is actually taking place persists, but exams should not be considered as a “life or death” determinant. Although avarice was the spur of industrialization, as stated by Scottish philosopher David Hume in 1742, economy should not intervene in education in the way it does today. Pupils should not be treated as, for instance, “the 10th grade classroom that flunked the exam,” they should be considered as the “individuals” who make up this group of learners and did not do so well due to some reason. And what is this reason preventing an effective test-taking process? Who are these individuals sitting on desks anxious since these grades will either classify them as “losers” or “yes, your future will rock?”

Isabela V., 16, Brazil

I read this article and I talked about education with my education with my Japanese friend. First things we thought about are situation in the Japan. In japan, you always have to go to university if you want to enter any kind of company. What I think about education is that education is the one way to measure how you can work. Not everything.

Lucas, 15, Japan

The main reason I am against the MAP test is that it discourages learning. My favorite way of learning is through talking and through communication. My favorite teachers are ALWAYS the ones who communicate with me and let me reach out to them. The MAP test discourages this. Students are forced to take a very uncomfortable test, where there is no way of preparing and they are supposed to believe that it brings positive results toward learning and that it encourages education. We know better than that. I am proud of the teachers who boycotted the test in Seattle, and truly hope that teachers will someday do that at my school as well.

Barbara, 14, Brazil


Of course such conversations don’t arise in a vacuum. In addition to the resources linked in my blog post, here are some of the other materials we explored and discussed in class. I hope you find the time to use them with your students as well.


Author: williamjtolley

IB Coordinator, IBEN Workshop Leader, Examiner, and DP/MYP Teacher | Inquiry, Mastery & Culturally Responsive-Learning Advocate

2 thoughts on “The People We Should Listen To”

  1. Just happened upon this – and appreciate the mention in the article. . . . would love to connect more and learn together

    1. Absolutely! Although it seems the link I used for your article is dead now. Do you have a new url I should replace the old one with?

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