Share story

There’s been more of the usual bashing of Seattle Public Schools lately, including from the press, so I thought I’d fire back with a question.

What is the fastest-growing part of the public-school system in Seattle?

Is it dropouts? Remedial learning? Families fleeing for private school?

No, not even close. The part that’s positively booming is the accelerated, advanced-learning program.

These are classes in which students often work two or more years ahead of their grade levels. They have long been the elite programs in Seattle Public Schools. But just as long they have been viewed by many as tiny islands of privilege.

The “tiny” part of that critique has less force these days. Because enrollment has skyrocketed, up 47 percent since 2008. The two programs, called the Accelerated Progress Program (or APP) and Spectrum, now have 4,200 students between them.

“This is the biggest it has ever been, by far,” says Bob Vaughan, who runs the programs. “I honestly didn’t think this could happen, this fast. It is just … awesome.”

What happened?

This won’t go over well with some. But Vaughan attributes much of the rise to the same exam that some Seattle teachers now are boycotting.

It’s called the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP test. It’s a computerized achievement test in math and reading given in Seattle schools since 2009. Teachers at Garfield High School and Orca K-8 now are refusing to give it because they say it wastes classroom time and resources.

But to Vaughan — and some untold number of Seattle families — it has been an eye-opener. The MAP is the only achievement test given to every kid in the lower grades in Seattle in more than a decade. It allowed Vaughan to identify hundreds of kids who were achieving at very high levels, but who hadn’t applied for advanced classes. Often because their families didn’t know about them or never imagined their kids might be eligible.

If a student scores high, Vaughan sends the family a letter encouraging them to apply. The student still has to score very well on an IQ-type test to get in.

Bottom line: Since the MAP test started, and Vaughan started using it as a recruiting tool, enrollment in the advanced programs has increased by about a thousand. He said he has not lowered the standards — that the rise is due to more families applying.

“It has awakened all this latent academic potential around the city,” Vaughan says.

What the test has not done is change the generally white racial makeup of the programs. They are 68 percent white today, same as before the growth spurt.

Matt Carter, a teacher at Orca K-8 who is boycotting the MAP test, said the test is “very Eurocentric” in its approach and may be racially biased. He said that even if the test is useful for finding high-achieving kids, it isn’t much aid to teachers working with a wide range of kids.

“Our point is that if we’re going to be doing all this testing, we just need a better test,” he said.

Regular readers know I am no fan of standardized-test mania. The one given by the state is of zero use to kids. A boycott of that one would be fine with me.

But I’m also a tiger Dad. And here’s a test credited with helping hundreds of kids leap over a barrier their families may not have known even existed. To get access to the top academic programs in this city.

How can that not be good? Maybe we do need a better test. But for now we toss this one aside at our kids’ risk.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or