By Eric M. Johnson
(Reuters) - A boycott by Seattle teachers of a widely used standardized test has attracted national attention and given new momentum to a growing protest movement that seeks to limit standardized testing in U.S. public schools.
The revolt by Seattle public school teachers, joining educators and students elsewhere, comes at a time of bitter political wrangling over how best to reinvigorate a $525 billion public school system that leaves American children lagging their counterparts in countries like Finland and South Korea.
Standardized tests have played an ever-more prominent role in public schools over the past decade.
Yearly testing in reading and math for elementary school students required by former President George W. Bush's 2002 landmark testing law, known as "No Child Left Behind," exposed stark achievement gaps in many schools, mainly along racial and economic lines, and spurred interventions to help struggling kids.
Sandy Kress, a former advisor to Bush on the law and lobbyist for Pearson, a company that publishes academic tests, said focusing too much on test scores alone will, in the end, cheat students out of the kind of quality education that sometimes can't be measured by standardized tests.
"If it's all back to just grades ... a lot of people will have an easy time for about 10 years, (but later) our kids will suffer dramatically," Kress said.
The Obama administration supports regular testing but has signaled some flexibility.
"Should you assess kids every year? Yes," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently. He added he was "more than sympathetic" to growing concerns about over-testing in school districts, some of which run standardized tests multiple times each year.
"There's a common-sense middle ground," Duncan said.
Increasingly, standardized tests carry high stakes. Teachers are often evaluated in part by their students' scores, and students may have to pass a standardized test to advance to the next grade in elementary school or earn a high-school diploma.
To prepare students for those high-stakes exams, and to monitor their academic progress more closely, many school districts - like Seattle - give additional standardized tests throughout the year.
STUDENTS OFF THE "MAP"
That's what teachers at Seattle's Garfield High School were protesting when they decided in January to boycott the multiple-choice Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, saying the computerized exam is not aligned with the state's curriculum and produces "meaningless results" upon which they are indirectly evaluated.
The Northwest Evaluation Association, maker of the MAP, said its test adapts to students' individual aptitudes and quickly provides educators with a reliable, fair progress report, though the test version used may not adhere to a specific teacher's syllabus.
Seattle schools have given the MAP test three times a year since 2009, on top of two other state-mandated exams. It is used in hundreds of school systems throughout Washington state and elsewhere.
Teachers and students staged rallies, and about 270 parents opted out for their children, some noting that the test was not required for graduation. Hundreds of students protested, either by not taking the test or completing it so quickly or randomly that the results were invalid, Garfield High School testing coordinator Kris McBride said.
Educators who did not give the test by February 28, the last day winter MAP test scores are valid, could face disciplinary action, said Clover Codd, a top official with the Seattle School District.
"We hear their concerns, we want to work with them, but we need to do what's right for our children," Codd said. "There may be two rights here."
A district-appointed task force will recommend on May 2 whether to renew a contract to use MAP, which costs the district $436,114 for 36,718 licenses.
The Seattle dissent was mirrored by dozens of high school students in Portland, Oregon, who launched a boycott in February over state-required exams students must pass to graduate, though they can meet the new proficiency requirements using other tests.
In Providence, Rhode Island, high school students splattered themselves with fake blood and pretended to be zombies to protest a similar move by state education officials.
Elsewhere, more than 500 school boards in Texas - and several large school districts in Florida - have passed resolutions demanding a reduced focus on standardized tests.
"We are just seeing the very beginning of this testing revolt," Jesse Hagopian, one of the dissenting teachers in Seattle, told Reuters.
"Maybe you can call it the 'Teachers' Spring,'" he added.
The Seattle move has drawn support from education leaders, such as historian Diane Ravitch, and the nation's largest teacher unions.
"As soon as they use an ill-designed test to make a high-stakes decision on someone's employment, I believe it's going to be in court," National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel told Reuters.
After demonstrators gathered outside Seattle Town Hall to protest her appearance there last month, the featured speaker, former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools Michelle Rhee, expressed her continued support for high-stakes testing.
"For far too long in this country, there was no accountability," Rhee said, later adding that collecting regular testing data was crucial to measuring student learning and should factor prominently in evaluations of teachers.
Outside Rhee's talk was Robert Murphy, a math teacher at a different Seattle high school that he said was rife with struggling students who need more instruction time.
"I know the glazed look in their eyes from the same test over and over," he said.
(Additional reporting by Stephanie Simon in Washington; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Barbara Goldberg)