When we were in college, learning how to be teachers, we were told that there were two types of assessments: summative and formative. Summative assessments come at the end of the unit or year. Their purpose is to “summarize” the learning that did or didn’t happen. You may remember these as “final tests.”
Formative assessments, on the other hand, come during the course of the unit or school year. Their purpose is to inform students, teachers and parents on the progress made by each student in regards to the learning. Ideally, these tests are used by teachers to adjust the pace or content of instruction; and by students and their parents to adjust the amount or intensity of effort.
The Seattle School District has recently found itself embroiled in a controversy over its assessment system. The district uses the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) as a formative assessment of math and reading comprehension skills. Their students take the computer-based tests twice a year and teachers, students and parents are supposed to use the results as I’ve described above.
This year, however, the teachers at Garfield High voted unanimously to boycott the MAP. Other teachers around the district followed suit, or at least sent words of support. Their basic beef with the test is that it isn’t aligned with their curriculum, rendering it completely useless as a formative assessment, and therefore a waste of precious instructional time.
I don’t teach in Seattle, and I don’t administer the MAP (my district uses something similar) so I don’t know exactly how things turned out this way, but I strongly suspect it has something to do with the fact that secondary English teachers don’t spend much time on direct instruction of reading comprehension, compared to their colleagues at the elementary level. The reading MAP, therefore, wouldn’t give them much feedback on the actual teaching and learning in their classrooms. Math teachers would find themselves equally frustrated, since their classes focus on specific math strands.
At this point things have reached a standoff: the teachers are refusing to administer the tests and the administration has insisted they do so, reluctantly threatening a ten-day, unpaid suspension for non-compliance.
I have to think that the teachers involved in the conflict must be asking themselves an important question: “Is this really the hill I want to die on?” And if it were me, my answer would be “no.”
First of all, the “hill” – if you follow my metaphor, has already been won. It’s hard to imagine things returning to the way they were after this episode. The teachers have made their point, and the administration has clearly listened. I would be very surprised if the MAP – at least at the secondary level – isn’t eliminated or at least drastically modified before next school year. And as for this year, I can’t imagine anyone looking at the Garfield High data with more than mild curiosity; if the students weren’t already disaffected about taking their MAP’s, they certainly are by now.
Furthermore, decisions regarding assessment data simply have to be made at the district level. A school district, after all, is not simply a loose confederation of completely autonomous teachers. The whole point of having a district administration is to coordinate and align the various programs and classrooms so that students, as they move through the system, get a comprehensive education. Like it or not, assessment is part of that experience. Every worker who’s ever had a job has found something dysfunctional about their workplace. That’s life; some of us laugh about it, all of us complain about it, and the best of us work to improve it.
And finally, there’s the pragmatic angle. Superintendent Banda has no choice but to inflict repercussions as a way out of the standoff. “Dying” on this hill will mean two week suspensions without pay; roughly $3,000, give or take. That’s not nothing. It will also mean a lot of lost instruction for the affected students; which ironically, is the biggest complaint made by the Garfield teachers about the very test they’re boycotting.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe in having principles and I believe in taking a stand for those principles. But there comes a time when your principles succumb to reality. And that’s the time to count your winnings, cut your losses and move on.