It's not uncommon to find one or two students — the rebels, the defiant, the anti-authority slackers — just flat-out refusing to take a big test. But at Garfield High School, in the middle of urban Seattle, it wasn't just one or two.
"Already, over 220 Garfield students, 55 percent of our junior class, have opted out of taking the [Smarter Balanced Assessment] which demonstrates our clear opposition to this test," the Garfield student government said in a statement.
Twenty-one states share the Smarter Balanced assessment, allowing Washington state schools to be able to be compared with schools from, say, Oregon, Idaho or Wyoming.
It's a sample of a larger movement that has spread throughout the entire country: Small-government conservatives, skeptical teachers, overwhelmed students and protective parents are refusing to take Common Core-based assessments. But some educators worry that by opting out, districts are losing the ability to fully measure their students' skills.
Brian Achenbaugh has two kids — a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old — in the East Valley school district. Neither of them took the Smarter Balanced assessment last year, when the test was just a trial run, and neither will take it this year, when it counts for real. Both years, Achenbaugh filled out an official "State Assessment Refusal Documentation Form" to make sure of that. Instead, his kids spend the testing periods reading and catching up on homework.
In contrast to the noisy boycotts in Seattle, the pockets of opposition in the Spokane region have been quieter. But Achenbaugh says local opt-out numbers are growing.
"It's on a slow climb," he says. "We are getting more and more people requested to be added to the [Spokane, WA Against Common Core] Facebook group."
The Common Core is the specific set of English and math standards that textbooks, lesson plans and the Smarter Balanced assessments are supposed to be based on in most states. Lately, it's become a lightning rod, a rare issue that small-government conservatives and teachers unions have united over. Critics complain the Common Core standards strip control of education from local parents and teachers, that it's developmentally inappropriate for younger grades, and that it steals time away from other subjects like music, art and science.
"If the kids are not doing well, more pressure is applied to the teachers and then to the kids," Achenbaugh says. "It's a vicious circle."
Now, with the introduction of the Smarter Balanced assessment, the issue of "high-stakes testing" has been sucked into the debate.
The test is given to students in grades three through eight and to high school juniors. By 2019, all high school students will have to pass the tests to graduate.
Achenbaugh says a neighbor's son was left exhausted and in tears last year from the pressure. "It's a grinder," he says. "They're pretty much toast by the time they're done."
But state administrators stress how valuable the test actually is. "The Smarter Balanced tests, with their emphasis on real-world skills, are better than any standardized test our state has administered before," Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn says in a statement. Not only that, but the state saves money by sharing costs with other states.
Travis Schulhauser, Spokane Public Schools' director of assessment and program effectiveness, says the Common Core standards are much more rigorous than previous standards, and so are the tests. He says that's a good thing.
"The bar is set very high," Schulhauser says. "This is the level I want my own children at."
Students will likely be tested on their research acumen, problem-solving skills, and their ability to compare and contrast multiple reading selections. One section of the test even adapts — giving students easier or tougher questions — depending on their performance. When an 11th grader passes the Smarter Balanced test, Schulhauser says, it means they're prepared for college. In fact, it means they'll automatically be able to skip any remedial classes when they go to college — a huge deal, considering the number of Washington state students that need catchup courses freshman year.
When a student refuses to take the test, the district and state are denied information on where they're succeeding or struggling. The data becomes skewed if too many students opt out, officials worry, and districts are prevented from learning what they need to do better.
Yet the Washington Education Association, which lobbied fervently against making standardized tests a part of teacher evaluations, has been opposed to high-stakes testing. Last year, it voted to support the right of parents to opt out.
"These tests are being used inappropriately. These tests should not be used for a graduation," WEA spokesman Rich Wood says. He argues that their preparation and administration sucks away countless hours from teachers.
Raschelle Holland, an instructional coach at Stevens Elementary, has become one of the most vocal teachers against the new tests.
The Smarter Balanced tests, even the math questions, are typically taken entirely on the computer. But Holland says that many younger students don't have the computer experience, and may struggle simply to type. "You have an 8-year-old with undeveloped coordination, in a computer lab for [hours], typing answers," Holland says. "There's a lot of fears and there's a lot of anxiety."
Not only that, but for weeks, Holland says, the computer lab at Stevens is closed, filled with test takers. That's not even counting the time it takes to practice the test. She continues to spread the word about how to opt out, but also says she's been instructed by the union to refrain from speaking out against the test during work hours.
"A sixth grade girl in my building said to me today how she did not want to take the test but she has to or she won't get to go to seventh grade," she wrote on the anti-Common Core Facebook page on Monday. "I'm not allowed to say a word during contract hours. I couldn't tell her that wasn't true or anything."
Next door in Idaho, a state famous for its desire for local control and parental choice, you'd expect the opt-out movement to be thriving. It hasn't.
"There is no opt-out in the state of Idaho," says Mike Nelson, the Coeur d'Alene school district's director of curriculum and assessment. He explains that state law prohibits public school students from opting out of state testing. One reason: An agreement between the federal government and the state of Idaho hinges on 95 percent of Idaho students taking a state-standardized test. If too few take the test, it could cost Idaho millions.
In the Madison School District in Rexburg, Idaho, Superintendent Geoffrey Thomas announced that the entire district was going to refuse to administer the Smarter Balanced test. Thomas was then pressured, receiving phone calls from the governor and the state superintendent urging him to reconsider. Facing legal hurdles, the district reversed its decision.
"Even though we are changing course, we do not regret having been the only school district nationwide to have taken a principled stand on this very important issue," Thomas says.
Back in Coeur d'Alene, Nelson says five families have attempted to opt out, but the district has sought to address their concerns. One set of parents was worried about the security of the student data collected, so Nelson brought them in to explain the procedures. Another was worried that the test was dehumanizing, so he invited the family member to be a proctor to learn how the test is administered.
That's been the tactic in Spokane as well. "Most of our schools will talk face to face with the parents who want to opt out about the pros and cons. It should be a conversation," Schulhauser says. "We can lead on it and implement it and talk to families and be supportive. Or we can hem and haw and complain." ♦
This story has been updated from its original version.