For Ballard teachers, dissatisfaction in MAP test has history

BHS principal wants to keep test, but teachers think it's a waste

While Garfield High School has taken the spotlight on the recent controversy over the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test, the subject has a history in Ballard.

On Saturday, Feb. 2, 18 Ballard High School teachers (so far) made public their intention to join Garfield in boycotting the MAP test. Though all of the 9th grade teachers have already finished administering the winter test, and won’t give it again until spring, they wanted to show solidarity.

Want to know what’s wrong with the test? Just take it from one of the more outspoken voices among Ballard High School teachers, Eric Muhs, who teaches science.

“You could replace it with a broken toaster or a flat tire and we wouldn’t notice,” he said.

Ballard High School Principal Keven Wynkoop took a more politically centrist position.

“I think that there are many pros and some cons to the MAP test, and that it’s a much more nuanced discussion than some reports have stated,” Wynkoop said. “For us, it’s very helpful to identify students that are deficient in certain skill areas.”

The MAP test was first started in Seattle Public Schools in 2009 and is administered in 5,200 districts across the nation. It’s a 45-minute computer-based assessment program produced by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) and it is taken two-three times a year (fall is optional). The idea is that the test is supposed to adapt to each child’s learning, adjusting in difficulty with each question answered right or wrong.

Among teachers, the MAP test has not been well received.

On Jan. 10, Garfield High School teachers refused to give the MAP test. It was one of the biggest teacher boycotts to date, according to a Seattle Times report.
Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Jose Banda was quick to send out a letter defending the MAP test and hold a press conference -- according to teachers, he even sent a letter to principals telling them to suspend or else discipline any teachers who refused to give the test -- but his actions have so far failed to calm the fervor.

Then, on Jan. 11, Ballard High School had 25 teachers sign an initial letter of support for Garfield.

“It was very clear that getting out a letter of support very rapidly was very important” Muhs said, explaining that they needed to show Garfield teachers were not standing by themselves and that their opinion was not an anomaly.

The letter of support has since gained over 80 signatures, and is still growing. The fact that not everyone on staff at Ballard has signed the letter is not indicative of people being against the boycott, Gundle said. Only one person so far has said no to him to signing the letter, he said.

Muhs explained that, with such a big staff and so little time to work on gathering signatures, they simply haven’t been able to ask everyone yet. Not including instructional assistants and other staff members, there are 85 teachers listed on Ballard High School’s staff website.

The “adaptive instruction” aspect of the MAP test has been a point of criticism from many teachers.

Noam Gundle, another outspoken science teacher at Ballard High School, said there are simply too many variables to create any meaningful, coherent data.

“Kids aren’t taking it in the same day in the same conditions and the same questions,” Gundle said. “It has a large margin of error, so from a scientific perspective it’s a meaningless test.”

Muhs contends that computers could never do “adaptive instruction” on the same level as a teacher.

“Adaptive instruction is something experienced teachers do very fluidly … as an experienced teacher I can look and see whether students are getting it,” Muhs said.

Muhs said teachers can look out at a crowd of students and tell whether or not they are “getting it” -- through blank stares, body gestures and overall level of participation in the lecture. Muhs, like many teachers with some experience, said he can make immediate adjustments to his teaching style to rein his students back in and create a better learning experience.

“Here we have just this dumb computer,” Muhs said. “Is it adaptive in the same way a teacher is? The answer is no.”

There have been other criticisms as well. Librarians have complained that the test ties up resources and makes it so the library is unavailable to students for weeks at a time. This can be particularly troublesome for students from low-income backgrounds, who often do not have access to computers or books the same way more privileged students might. As a result, they are unable to do any necessary research for homework and projects while MAP testing is in process.

Salmon Bay K-8 Librarian Linda Illman and Ballard High School Librarian Debora Arthur signed onto a letter of solidarity from school librarians asking Banda and the School Board to suspend the MAP test until a proper review of its effectiveness has been completed. (We initially reported that Arthur did not sign on, but that was erroneous.)

Teachers also say that the test does not quite line up with what is being taught in the classroom.

Wynkoop said he does not want to put the MAP test down quite yet, citing that the administration has been cooperative and receptive to concerns. For example, originally three tests were required a year, one for fall, winter and spring, but the administration has since agreed to make the fall test optional.

“Because there has been a worthwhile back and forth … I would like to continue to do this and not just throw the ‘baby out with the bathwater,’” Wynkoop said.

Wynkoop did express concern over testing older students, who generally are harder to pin down than younger children. Because the students have started gaining a greater sense of freedom and individuality, it’s easy for them to not feel like trying hard on what they might see as a meaningless test, he said. Younger students, meanwhile, often will try their hardest on whatever test is given them, providing for more reliable results, he said.

In any case, the opinion of Ballard teachers on the subject is nothing new. In fact, one might say they are the ones who planted the seeds for what has become a national controversy.

“At Ballard for the last three years we’ve sort of had the tradition of being a pain in the ass, politically,” Muhs said.

After all, it was Ballard High School teachers who started the eyebrow-raising three years ago, when they ushered through a “No Confidence Vote” in then Superintendent Marie-Goodloe Johnson. One of the lines of their motion read, “Her conflict of interest in selling the school district an unproven standardized student assessment plan sold by a private corporation on whose board she sits, and her failure to disclose this conflict of interest to the School Board at the time of the sale.”

That assessment plan was the MAP test, and that board was the NWEA. With Johnson on the board of the winning bidder, Ballard teachers (again, Gundle and Muhs were among the more outspoken) questioned whether there was a fair competition.

Teachers voted nearly unanimously on Sep. 2, 2010, that they expressed no confidence in the superintendent. It was a symbolic vote, merely showing deep dissatisfaction with Johnson’s leadership, but history shows that she was not long for the district.

Then, in 2011, Gundle wrote up a motion against the MAP testing that teachers passed, also nearly unanimously. It did little to change things at the time, but it was a sign of more to come.

According to the Seattle Times, Gundle wrote up a similar motion this year, which passed nearly unanimously at a meeting of Seattle Education Association representatives, calling the union to support any teachers who refuse to administer the test, asking the district to not discipline the teachers and demanding that the MAP test be stopped as soon as possible.

Muhs said since Banda was new to the district, and since he was not the one who renewed the contract for the test this year, that Banda had the chance to put a stop to the MAP test.

“We will see him as a sensible hero of justice if he dumps this test,” Muhs said.

Correction: We initially reported that Ballard High School Librarian Debora Arthur did not sign onto a letter from school librarians opposing the MAP test. In fact, she did. We apologize for the error.

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