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Wednesday, March 6, 2013 - Page updated at 03:30 p.m.

Op-ed: MAP boycott is about keeping test scores out of teacher evaluations

By Michelle Rhee
Special to The Times

SEATTLE public school students should pay attention. They’re getting a front-row, real-world lesson in how the actions of adults can distract from what’s best for students.

Some local teachers union members have decided to reject Washington state’s student assessment program, and that’s unfortunate because every great teacher knows that student assessments can be a great tool.

The Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessments used in Seattle and throughout the state aim to measure how students in kindergarten through ninth grade are doing. If tools like this are used correctly, they can help teachers adjust instruction, tweak lesson plans and tailor classroom time to meet the specific needs of individual children in the classroom.

However, instead of engaging in a constructive discussion on how to fix the flaws they see in the MAP assessments, boycotters at three Seattle schools refused to administer the tests at all. Teachers unions as far away as New York and Chicago jumped in to demonstrate solidarity. And that begs the question: Why are labor unions latching on to Seattle’s MAP assessments, entangling them with a completely separate national debate over using standardized testing as a means of measuring teacher performance?

The arguments against the MAP can be dispensed with quickly. First, some argue that because the MAP assessments have no bearing on a student’s letter grade, they aren’t taken seriously and therefore aren’t useful. But that’s something many educators can remedy by setting an example and choosing to take the assessments seriously themselves. Moreover, the MAP assessment was agreed to within the union’s collective-bargaining process just three years ago, and is scheduled to be a bargaining issue again, appropriately, within the contract-negotiation process.

True, many assessments being used across the country could stand to be improved. That’s why educators ought to engage with them — not boycott them — in order to turn assessments into better measures of student learning. Seattle Schools Superintendent José Banda has already convened a task force to evaluate assessments; its recommendations are due in May.

No one argues against the idea that a student ought to be better at math and reading at the end of a school year than at the beginning. Also, no one suggests that every school should aim for something less than continual improvement.

Despite that, labor unions across the country are fighting against using test scores as a factor in teachers’ performance evaluations.

They focus only on preserving union members’ jobs, while many parents, teachers, education-reform organizations and other concerned citizens understand the need for some objective measurement to help determine how our schools are doing.

We know standardized testing works. For example, look at the District of Columbia, where I was school chancellor. By including students’ test scores as a component of teacher evaluations, along with other reforms, such as rewarding teachers with performance-based pay increases, D.C. produced one of the best retention rates for great teachers in the country, 88 percent, while retaining only 45 percent of its low-performing teachers. That’s a prime example of putting kids’ educations first.

It is criminal that, in many communities throughout America, we send children every day into classrooms that are failing them. Astronomically high dropout rates and subpar math and reading-proficiency levels in lower-income, inner-city schools ought to jolt us as especially immoral.

Every child deserves a quality education, regardless of his or her circumstances, and a path out of poverty.

Instead of a national conversation over how best to serve our kids, Seattle boycotters are using a routine learning assessment to spark a debate over standardized tests and teacher evaluations. In doing so, the debate over the nuts and bolts of the MAP robs the public of a much more meaningful dialogue about how to ensure a high-quality education for every American student.

Michelle Rhee is CEO and founder of StudentsFirst, the author of “Radical: Fighting to Put Students First,” and former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools.

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