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Teacher Activist

Battling high-stakes testing
Jesse Hagopian
Jesse Hagopian

In the late 1980s, a third-grade student went with his mom to a parent-teacher conference and saw his score: There was the line that represented the average, and then he saw the dot, way below that, which represented him.

That student is now history teacher Jesse Hagopian, who works at Seattle’s Garfield High School and serves as the advisor of the school’s black student union. 

“I knew from that moment until about halfway through college that I wasn’t intelligent,” he tells EW in a phone interview, recalling that first experience with a standardized test and his reaction to it. “And I could prove it to you and show you my test scores.”

In March, Hagopian will speak in Eugene, along with his frequent collaborator, Wayne Au, a professor of education at University of Washington Bothell, as part of an event sponsored by local education advocacy group Community Alliance for Public Education (CAPE). 

Hagopian’s fight to advocate for his students — and against standardized tests like the one he took in third grade — has brought him national attention. He writes op-eds, speaks at rallies and, when the Washington State Legislature threatened to cut education funding, he staged a citizens arrest of the lawmakers that resulted in his own arrest. In 2013, he led his school in a successful boycott against a district-mandated test.

His visit comes at a crucial time. This spring, public school students across Oregon will gear up to take their own standardized test — the Smarter Balanced assessment — for the second year to evaluate their progress in aligning to the Common Core State Standards. 

Last year was not without controversy: About 11 percent of students in Eugene’s district opted out of the test, according to the Oregon Department of Education. In the Springfield School District, the opt-out rate was closer to 5 percent, similar to the overall average for Oregon. 

Roscoe Caron, a member of CAPE and a retired teacher in Eugene School District 4J, says he hopes Hagopian’s visit will help inform people about what is happening to public education. “There are billions of dollars at stake,” he says, because of the large companies like Pearson that will profit from these new laws, selling the tests themselves as well as the books to help prepare for them. 

“The only way to turn this around is, first and foremost, by people refusing to take the tests,” Caron says.

Larry Lewin, also a retired teacher involved with CAPE, argues that the tests are not helpful for teachers because the students will be in a different class by the time the scores are released. “It’s out of balance,” he says. He adds that CAPE asked the Eugene School Board to take the new exams, but its members declined. 

The message Hagopian will bring to Eugene is simple: Families who decide to forgo the test will not be alone. He rattles off numbers: 200,000 families in New York opting out of the Common Core-aligned test last spring, 60,000 in Washington state. In New Mexico during the exams, hundreds of students walked out, carrying signs that read “I am more than a score,” a majority of them Latinos. 

And Hagopian says the decision to opt out is not just a fad fueled by white suburban mothers, as some claim. People of color are joining in, including influential black leaders like Karen Lewis, the head of the Chicago teachers union, and Gerald Hankerson, the leader of the NAACP in Seattle. 

Hagopian says he sees common ground between the opt-out movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“I think the fight for black lives definitely means we don’t want to get shot down in the streets by unaccountable police,” he says. “But it also means we want an education worthy of black students that empowers them to understand racism and undo it.” 

According to Hagopian, the roots of standardized testing can be traced back to the eugenics and white supremacist movements of the early 20th century. For all the complicated policies and acronyms that surround the current debate about education, Hagopian says, a history lesson is all that it takes to understand what is at stake. 

“The first tests were developed by open eugenicists, out-and-out proud white supremacists,” he says, citing the example of Carl Brigham, who helped develop the SAT and whose 1923 book A Study of American Intelligence was influential in the eugenics movement. 

Once familiar with that history, Hagopian says, “you’ll never again fall for the lie that standardized testing is there to help black kids.” 

He compares testing to a thermometer. “A thermometer never cured a fever, right?” he asks. He says that’s what these tests are, an effort to take students’ temperatures over and over in the form of standardized exams, even though the achievement gap between white and non-white students has been documented since the 1960s. 

The trends in testing could be shifting. When Hagopian and his colleagues boycotted a standardized test in 2013, he says they received tremendous support from across the country. “It started with one teacher who contacted me and said she was going to refuse to administer this test,” he says, adding that “it has continued beyond my wildest imagination.”

Many of the leaders of the move towards standardized testing are “backpedaling,” he says, including President Obama, who recently conceded that students are taking too many tests. 

And in Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown signed a law last June that makes it easier to skip the Smarter Balanced test: Parents can now opt out their child for any reason, while previously it was limited to disability or religious belief. 

Jesse Hagopian and Dr. Wayne Au will speak 7 pm Friday, March 4, at First Christian Church, 1166 Oak Street. The event is free and open to the public.