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At a school with a history of social protest, this teacher is leading an opposition to ‘excessive testing’

October 20, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
In Seattle, protest against the Common Core test is catching on. Meet one high school teacher who has led a boycott against standardized tests as educational assessment, and who educates his students on their right to opt out. Gwen Ifill reports.

GWEN IFILL: Not long ago, I traveled to Seattle to talk with Bill and Melinda gates, the Microsoft billionaires who have become leading philanthropists for a school reform movement that champions testing for students and teachers.

But not everyone agrees with that approach, not even in the Gates Foundation’s home town. While in Seattle, I talked with one of the teachers leading the opposition.

The report is part of our American Graduate series, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

JESSE HAGOPIAN, Garfield High School: Think about how this history relates to your life, and we will come back to the classroom and have a discussion.

GWEN IFILL: Jesse Hagopian is a teacher on a mission.

JESSE HAGOPIAN: You can go at your own pace.

GWEN IFILL: He wants his Garfield High School students to know their history, that Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones ones walked these halls before the students were even born.

JESSE HAGOPIAN: Take a second to read some of the history.

GWEN IFILL: And he wants them to know their choices, among them, the right to opt out of the standardized tests Washington State schools use to gauge student performance.

JESSE HAGOPIAN: Studies have shown that kids will take some 113 standardized tests now in their K-12 career. It’s just become completely over the top. It’s become a multibillion-dollar industry to sell exams to children in order to rank and sort them. And it’s become really a test-and-punish model.

GWEN IFILL: The tests are part of the Common Core standards adopted by 24 states and the District of Columbia to improve student achievement and teacher performance. The program has become a flash point for advocates on both ends of the political spectrum.

So who has the most rushing yards?

GWEN IFILL: Thirty-six-year-old Hagopian, a married father of two who cut his teeth as a Teach for America instructor in Washington, D.C., returned to his alma mater in 2010 to teach history.

JESSE HAGOPIAN: Today is going to be all about trying to connect your life to history. What does history have to do with me?

GWEN IFILL: By 2013, he was leading a boycott of one of the major tests mandated by the Seattle Public Schools.

JESSE HAGOPIAN: I want you to look at it through a whole different lens.

GWEN IFILL: The school superintendent still supports the tests, but they’re not required to graduate. And last month, Seattle schoolteachers took that protest a step further, walking off their jobs for the first time in 30 years.

The fight against what he calls excessive testing pits Hagopian against not only the U.S. Department of Education…

JESSE HAGOPIAN: So, are you going to speak some Spanish today?

GWEN IFILL: … but also against deep-pocketed school reformers who push for the tests to measure progress.

JESSE HAGOPIAN: Yes. The corporate education reformers, they have one view of assessment, and that view of assessment is informed by this: If you see a kid with hypothermia, and he’s shaking uncontrollably, what you need to do is go take his temperature. And then, once you have taken his temperature, you take his temperature again, and then you take it again and again.

And then the really sophisticated thought is that you actually should then use a digital thermometer if you’re in the 21st century. Our philosophy of assessment is a lot different. If you see a kid shaking uncontrollably because they’re cold, you wrap them in a blanket. And you nurture them and you give them the resources that they would need to recover.

GWEN IFILL: Garfield High School is not new to social protest. Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King Jr. both drew thousands when they spoke here. Decades later, Senator Barack Obama paid a visit as well. And when it comes to Common Core testing, both teachers and students have joined the boycott.

Senior Shedrick Johnson has ever intention of heading off to college next year without taking the Measures of Academic Progress test, known as MAP.

SHEDRICK JOHNSON, Student: I think it’s a waste of time. We already have the SATs, the ACTs. We have to have a certain grade-point average to even get into college, and we don’t need another hindrance in front of us.

GWEN IFILL: Did your mother think, wait a second, they said you had to take a test, you have to take a test?

SHEDRICK JOHNSON: She sure did. She sure did. I had to really explain it to her and explain that it’s not a graduation requirement. And when I broke down the process to her, she said, OK, that’s fine. Just let me sign the slip and then you go on back to class.

GWEN IFILL: There are strange bedfellows in this fight.

JESSE HAGOPIAN: Sometimes, I get accused of not liking tests, but, in fact, I really find authentic assessment important.

GWEN IFILL: Many conservatives, including most Republican presidential candidates, condemn the Common Core standards as government overreach, while liberals like Hagopian say they promote inequality.

JESSE HAGOPIAN: I think that we are in the midst of the largest uprising against high-stakes testing in U.S. history. Never before have there been more parents, students, and teachers resisting these exams and the standards that they come shrink-wrapped with, and it’s been breathtaking to watch.

In New York State, there were 200,000 families alone that opted their kids out of the test.

Have a good afternoon, you guys.

Right here in Washington, we had approaching 60,000 families opt their kids out of the Common Core test this past year, including over half of all juniors in the state, an incredible uprising of parents that want a much bigger vision for the purpose of education and for understanding what their kids know.

Both brothers became active in the black student union.

GWEN IFILL: The protest is catching on, at least in Seattle. Last year, fewer than 60 of the 3,000 10th graders who sat for the test opted out. This year, the number shot up to 500, including half the students at Garfield.