For the first time, two Colorado school districts could see their high schools face sanctions because a critical mass of seniors are refusing to take the state’s new standardized tests.
In what will likely be the largest — and most public — assault so far on the state’s school accountability system, nearly 200 high school students at a Boulder high school are expected to opt-out of the new standardized tests they’re supposed to take Thursday and Friday. Instead, they will hold a public protest Thursday morning outside their school.
And in Douglas County, at least one principal has made a formal plea to parents to do what ever they can to have their students take the social studies and science tests this week.
And rumors continue to grow that more schools across the state will see similar levels of students opting out.
While opponents to standardized tests cite many reasons why they opt their students out, students at Boulder’s Fairview High School, where the public demonstration will take place, say they’ve been tested their entire educational career and enough is enough.
“We want to change the community for the better, and change the way our education system works,” said Rachel Perley, a senior at Fairview High School and one of the lead organizers behind the protest.
In interviews with Chalkbeat Colorado, and in a YouTube video and open letter to school and state officials, Boulder students said the new exams won’t have a direct impact on their college or career trajectory. They also claimed the tests don’t align with their high school curriculum. And they fear the gap between their ninth grade science class and their senior year won’t serve as a reliable indicator of how much they learned.
While the decision by students and their families not to take the test will have little impact on their future, their respective schools might face repercussions not seen before in Colorado.
State law requires that schools maintain a 95 percent participation rate in each exam. But if 95 percent of students don’t participate in two or more content areas the school’s accreditation rating is lowered. If a school’s accreditation drops too low, and stays there for five years, the school district that operates that school could face more sanctions.
And while it’s likely that this is the first year that any school is in serious jeopardy of not meeting that 95 percent threshold, it’s not yet clear how the state might respond if schools miss that bar.
Some schools, fearful of a lowered accreditation rating, are urging parents who are wavering to make their students participate.
Douglas County’s Mountain Vista High School Principal Michael Weaver, in a Oct. 31 letter to parents, said the number of opt-out letters he’s received already crosses a threshold that puts his school’s accreditation in jeopardy. He requested parents do whatever they can to make sure their students take the test.
“I am certain that the Class of 2015 understands that Mountain Vista and our staff have never considered opting out or refusing to support them as they have navigated through their high school careers,” he wrote.
Other schools are keeping meticulous track of parent refusals, hoping that evidence will be sufficient to keep their accreditation rating. At urging of state officials, they’re collecting letters, emails, and keeping phone logs of conversations.
As of Friday, administrators at Fairview had 180 letters of refusal, or 30 percent of the senior class.
“It will be interesting if our accreditation is jeopardized because of the lack of participation of CMAS,” said Don Stensrud, Fairview’s principal. “Kids here literally go to all the Ivy’s across the nation.”
Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger said he’s had ongoing conversations with the students behind the Fairview protest and that he is empathetic to their concerns about testing. But, he said, his schools will still proctor the tests.
“What I’ve conveyed to them — and nothing has been confrontational — is that ‘just so you know, you’re not in a very different place than where your board of education or superintendent is. We’re having those same conversations with state lawmakers, but we’re under a legal obligation to administer these tests,'” he said.
Colorado has an established opposition to the state’s exams, and small number of families have always chosen to opt their students out of standardized tests. But on average, the number of students who don’t take the test based on parent refusal — Colorado’s technical term for opting out — has been less than one percent. Even last year, when it appeared the opt-out movement was stronger than ever, opt-outs only ticked up slightly.
But the students in Boulder are working outside the established opt-out community and said they’ve come to their conclusions about the new tests on their own.
Because of that, the protest and apparent increase of students refusing to take the test at other Colorado schools is likely to provide established opponents of standardized tests with plenty of ammunition as the state continues to wrestle with the question of standardized exams.
“A lot of it has to do — and I’ve been wondering what is the difference is this year, myself — with trying to test seniors, because that’s crazy,” said Karen McGraw, a Mountain Vista High School parent and leader at United Opt Out, an organization that organizes parents against standardized tests across the nation.
McGraw has opted her children out of Colorado’s testing system for three years.
“I don’t think the tests are good for kids, I don’t think they’re good for teachers, I don’t think they’re good for the future of public education,” McGraw said.
The debate over the November tests mirrors a much larger conversation happening across the nation and state.
Parents in Florida blasted their state’s testing system at a recent parent meeting. During the summer, media personality Glenn Beck held a virtual town hall to rally opponents to the Common Core State Standards and their aligned exams. And last spring, two teachers in New York decided to not administer the tests themselves.
Meanwhile in Colorado, parents, school officials, and lawmakers have for the past year been embroiled in a debate about what role standardized assessments should play in the classroom and in the state’s accountability system.
“I do know we have a number of families who believe this [new] test does not make sense,” said Liz Fagen, Douglas County’s superintendent.
Earlier this year, the school district hosted a series of meetings to discuss the state’s testing system.
While Fagen declined to discuss specific numbers of parent refusals the district has received so far this fall, she said, “It seems to me, [the number of opt-outs] have been building over the last few years. But our response is we’re required to give these assessments. And we’re going to — in good faith — administer these tests, document parent refusals, and provide makeups.”
Meanwhile, the district will continue to lobby for a change to the system, she said.
“We’re big fans of accountability, but we don’t think this is the answer,” Fagen said.
Currently, every Colorado student enrolled between the third and 11th grade are required to take language arts and math exams. Also, one grade per elementary, middle, and high school level are required to take a social studies and science test. High school juniors are also required to take the ACT.
During the last legislative session, a bill that would have allowed some school districts waivers from the state’s standardized tests — which goes above and beyond what’s required by the federal government — was amended to instead form a review committee to study the issue. That committee, which is currently on a listening tour throughout the state, must make recommendations — if any — to the General Assembly next year.
Broadly, supporters of the exams believe there is power in the data the tests yield. They believe the results can hold schools accountable to teach every student regardless of race, economic background, or ability, and can inform how effective teachers are at their jobs. Opponents, meanwhile, believe the tests are punitive, gobble up too much instruction time, and are nothing more than a ploy to make money for curriculum companies.
Which path the legislature may take next session is unknown.
If the Fairview students have it their way, the senior social studies and science tests will be abolished.
“Hopefully, the protest make a change,” Perley, the Fairview senior, said.