“An Educational Hunger Games”

On Thursday night, EDU hosted a panel discussion with about 75 folks in attendance called “Does standardized testing improve our children’s education?”

We were excited for the last minute appearance of Jesse Hagopian, from Garfield High School in Seattle. He spoke at the beginning of the meeting about how they organized the boycott against the MAP test (this test sounds a lot like the CLA here in San Francisco). If you don’t know about it please check it out here.

He said the boycott idea came from a coworker who called him to meet up in his role as shop steward/Building Rep for his union at the school site. “She sat me down and said I’m not giving the MAP test.” “Okay, what can we do so you don’t get punished,” was his answer. The solution was to start organizing. They held small meetings at lunch in every department until they had critical mass. The next step was the whole staff. “We took it to an all-staff meeting and debated the pros and cons. I didn’t sugar coat it. If you decide not to give this test…, your livelihood will be on the line…. But a different teacher stood up and said, ‘this test is labeling me and my kids a failure and I’d rather be reprimanded for standing up for something I believe in than just letting this test run us over.'” After that, the staff voted near unanimously to boycott the test.

The panel was fantastic…..

Brian Jones (member of MORE in NYC, producer of The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman):
“Standardized tests as a tool of measurement are profoundly and extremely limited. You’re not measuring length or width with a ruler. You’re measuring a person and a person’s learning and assigning a number to it.”

“After ten years of high stakes testing we can see this isn’t bringing needed resources to improve education. It is instead, ‘an educational Hunger Games.'”

He explained how NYC schools are graded on a curve (something we’d never tolerate in the classroom) and the city announces ahead of time that 7% of the schools will get D’s and 3% of the schools will get an F.

“Race and class will always dictate the outcomes of standardized tests because tests are a cultural product that reflect the values and outlook of the dominant culture.”

“The tests are not being misapplied. The tests have been perfectly designed for their purpose, the privatization of public schools as we know them.”

He closed by saying that the obsession with data feeds the attacks on unions, feeds school closures to be replaced by charters, feeds the ideology of individual merit in our society. Tests teach kids early to “produce” and keep their “numbers up” and if they do not, they have no one to blame but themselves.

Lisa Schiff (Beyond Chron, member of Parents for Public Schools)

In San Francisco, we have open enrollment and parents are trying to choose the best schools for their children. While they may hear there are problems with the tests, test scores are there and parents don’t have a whole lot else on which to make their decision.

She said, “I actually don’t think my kids’ teachers know them that well, but how could they? They have 38 students in the class. It’s not the fault of the teacher. It’s not the fault of my kids. It’s the fault of this system.”

Talking about the tests can be a touchstone to start bridging the gap between the school culture and families.

Maria Lourdes Nocedal (member of EDU and a 4th grade teacher at Sheridan Elementary)

On a poster in the front of the room Maria Lourdes delineated each of the assessments she gives each year. She went through the 35 hours it takes three times a year to give an assessment she believes is very useful – the Fontas and Pinnell reading assessment. On top of that there are the assessments she writes for the subject matter she teaches, the district CLA, 3 times a year, the math Open Response component of the CLA, an additional open ended assessment that is graded by teachers. And finally the state tests – 5 hours total to prepare and give the writing assessment and 10 hours for the CST Language Arts and Math.

She shared letters from her students. “I don’t read the questions, even though you taught me to.” “I don’t think the test makes me smart because it’s about memorization.” Students reported feelings of being dumb, anxiety and fear about what the tests would mean for their future.

In closing, Maria Lourdes invited everyone to join EDU in a study group this summer. We’re reading Pencils Down. Our website will have info as we settle on dates, times and location.

Giulio Sorro (health and humanities teacher at June Jordan in SanFrancisco)


Giulio explained the history of June Jordan – a school intentionally created about ten years ago by families, nonprofits and teachers who wanted to bring a different model of education to a historically underserved community.

At June Jordan the focus is not on standardized tests, but on student portfolios. Students present and defend original research and literary analysis as a record of their annual learning. It is both an assessment tools and a right of passage for all students who come through their school.

He said without the “chain around your ankle of standardized testing,” their system allows teachers to be better. “We’re not in competition with each other and we’re not living in fear.” He explained that competition is an individualism that festers in both neighborhoods and students. Under the weight of standardizes tests “students become competitive with each other and schools become competitive with the next one, and what a good school is is just all about the data.”

“Social justice and standardized testing can not coexist. How do you measure a kid’s understanding of liberation with A. B. C. D.? You can’t do it.” He went on to say we cannot ignore that in San Francisco, African-American students do worse than black students in any other district in California. But this is an issue the district is silent on as it touts its high urban school district CST scores.

After Lowell high school June Jordan has the second highest percentage of kids going to college. Giulio closed by saying, “We have to re-spark that place of learning, because [high school students] been so done in [by testing]” that they have to find “that passion to open the mind.”

In our breakout groups folks spoke to the problem we have to deal with – parents, teachers and students have internalized and believe a school is good because of test scores. Many believe tests are a fact of life and are accepted to a certain degree.

Parents, teachers and former students spoke to the harmful effects of high stakes testing. Emotions were raw in response the helplessness and demoralization folks feel in the face of the testing onslaught.

At one school, teachers issued a letter with CLA test scores explaining the teacher critique of the test. But we still need to do some research to find out who in this city is making money off the endless testing and who is benefitting – because it is certainly not the students and not the teachers. One parent in attendance said, “I want the union to step up. Hell yeah to Seattle.”

We closed the meeting with a vote to meet again in the Fall and passed around a sign up sheet to get people on board for this summer’s study group. Please join us.

A great thanks to everyone on the panel and to everyone who attended and made this meeting possible. We hope to see many of you again at El Rio (Mission and Precita) on May 24th from 4 to 6 p.m. Come out and continue this important conversation.