Testing isn't educating

High schoolers in Portland, Ore., are joining students in other cities who have decided to take a stand against the standardized testing madness. Following a panel discussion about organizing a boycott, Alexia Garcia, Ujea Woods and Emma Christ sat down to talk to Andrea Hektor and Grant Booth about the activism against testing in the Portland Public Schools (PPS). Alexia and Ujea are seniors at Lincoln High School and Emma is a junior at Cleveland High School. Alexia is also the student representative to the PPS Board.

High school students in Portland organize against the OAKS testHigh school students in Portland organize against the OAKS test

WE HEARD Alexia speak at the panel discussion, and she did a great job of outlining what students are doing here in terms of the boycott and why. Can you go over what the boycott is?

Alexia: It's a campaign by both the Portland Public Schools (PPS) Union and the Portland Student Union. Both of our groups were talking a lot about standardized testing and evaluations based on those test scores, and at one point, a student said, "Why don't we just refuse to take our OAKS [Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills] tests?"

We found that with OAKS, a school needs to test at least 95 percent of students in each demographic, so 95 percent of the whole, 95 percent of African Americans, etc. If that doesn't happen, the school gets "In Need of Improvement" on participation, which would give their whole score on the state report card "In Need of Improvement."

When we found this out, we were a little bit concerned--all of our schools are going to appear like they're failing. We ended up saying: You know what? We're going to twist that message. We know our schools are in need of improvement. Anyone who goes into our schools can know that. Beyond that, it's really the system that's in need of improvement, and we don't need a score to tell us that. So I think that's a general message of the campaign.

We've been encouraging students to opt out of taking the tests. You can do that by submitting a note to your school, and students have been opting out. I think the majority of schools are failing currently.

Ujea: Except it's been a little different at Lincoln, where the administration has really pushed back and made an effort to seek out the kids who said they're going to opt out and make sure that they're taking the test and going to class. I don't think Lincoln is going to fail. We did fail last year, and it was due to the demographics. This year, they've been completely different.

Alexia: The system works for them.

Ujea: Yeah, exactly, the system works for them.

Emily: At Cleveland, it's a little different, even though the system tends to work for a large majority of the people at Cleveland as well. Unlike at Grant High School where the principal sent out a little letter that helped if you were interested in opting out of the test, Cleveland hasn't done that. The administration isn't fully backing it, but they're pushing hard for taking the standardized test.

And so we have another month until we take our test, so we're just sitting back and waiting. We've been going to different high schools and standing for solidarity--like Jefferson just took theirs, and I know five students walked out and we supported them.

YOU MENTIONED that the system works well for some schools and not for others. Could you expand on that?

Ujea: From elementary school, kids in some schools have been taught the things that they need to know how to do well on standardized tests. A lot of the kids at Lincoln grow up in a family where they're expected to do well on these tests and are given the resources that they need.

I came from Beach Elementary School, which is in North Portland, and so I had a different experience in my elementary school. But my parents were like the kids' parents at Lincoln. They gave me everything I needed and made sure that I was on track. My peers at Beach didn't have the same priorities--they had other things that they were worried about.

Standardized testing is biased in that sense anyway, and it just caters toward the kids that are prepared--the majority. There are a lot of kids at Lincoln that fall into the category of not doing well on standardized testing, but the majority of kids at Lincoln do very well.

Alexia: You see a high correlation between standardized test scores and race and class, and you see that neighborhoods are built up around income. So you have these pockets of wealth, these pockets of poverty, and then you have the cultural aspects of different groups. Some students never got read to as kids because their parents are immigrants and they can't speak English.

Every little thing culturally can play into it--like your family's emphasis on education and the knowledge that you need to be reading to your kid. And then there's the fact that if you come to school hungry, you're not going to perform as well. If you didn't sleep the night before, you're not going to perform as well. All of these little things that also generally relate to race and class can have an affect on a student's performance.

And then to turn around and say, "We're going to evaluate your schools and teachers on that" is a pretty absurd expectation in that it's really asking teachers to go beyond these social barriers, beyond the classroom and tackle these bigger social issues.

Emily: At least from my perspective, the school district--or government--doesn't really do very much to improve schools that are given this "In Need of Improvement" title. The ones that are thriving--like Lincoln or Cleveland--just continue to thrive. Both schools have been given the full IB [International Baccalaureate] program, which adds to the success of the school. And then there are other schools that are just continuing to fall underneath.

BOTH THE student unions were discussing testing. Are those the types of issues you were discussing when the idea of the boycott came about?

Alexia: We have a couple of bullet talking points. The first one is that you shouldn't try to quantify my knowledge and reduce what I know into a number. It's a pretty limiting way to ask, "Do your students know how to read?" There are so many other things that go into a student's performance.

It's pretty limiting as far as creativity goes. It's limiting in that they only test in four areas. It's a pretty poor way to say, "This is how we're going to show that students know what they know," instead of a more holistic approach where we collect students' actual work. Some students do better in speeches, some do better with projects--it's pretty ridiculous to just say, "Here's your score, so this is how well you perform."

MUSIC AND art, too.

Alexia: Honestly, music and art and civics seem like pretty important things for people to know.

Beyond that, we've been saying that race and class are an issue--as far as the high correlation in test scores, and then the racial bias that's built into the test. In general, a teacher is so much more than just a test score. If we want to do it holistically, you should have people that are directly in the classroom evaluating, parents and people who work with the teacher, to give that feedback instead of "Here are your student's test scores."

And finally, we talk about the amount of money that it costs. It has cost our state millions of dollars to administer the OAKS test. The Common Core State Standard has come in, and they're saying it's going to be double or even triple the cost of OAKS. And then there's the Achievement Compacts, which are basically data analysis and goal setting for how students perform on tests.

We see all that, and we respond, "Why are we spending our money there?" Teachers don't like it, students don't like it, and it's not necessarily helping our schools. If anything, we should invest that money in teachers, making sure those relationships are being built.

School is, if anything, a standardized system--you've got the same textbooks and a lot of times similar curriculum. What's really going to break down that standardization is the personal relationships students have with teachers. If a student can't read, it's going to have to be the teacher who intervenes and says, "Here's where you're messing up. Here's where we need to work on it and improve."

WERE YOU inspired by the boycott of the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test in Seattle? Or were you already thinking about a boycott?

Alexia: We were planning this in December. It's really exciting. I remember getting a message from someone saying, "Just sharing information. Here's something you could do," with a link to the boycott at Garfield High School. And I responded and said we have a plan in mind, and I'm going to present to the board on Monday! It was just really exciting.

I GREW up in a poorer area outside of Washington, D.C., at the time that they were just starting to implement funding based on testing. Even then, there was a vicious cycle of poorer schools constantly failing and then receiving less funding, and the schools that did well receiving more funding--which made zero sense even when I was in high school. I didn't realize how much that trend had accelerated until recently.

In terms of the larger notion of what's been happening with education reform, do you have any thoughts on the state of the education system today, and what education could or should be like?

Ujea: People say that the education system we have right now is modeled on the industrial revolution, and it honestly feels that way right now. We're just a product. You add on and you add on, and each year it just keeps on going. That true even more so now with other countries that are supposedly going to surpass us in the future. There's the pressure of being some kind of output that is going to be able to do what it's supposed to.

But when it comes down to it, education is a human thing--it's other humans teaching younger humans so that we can be the best that we can. Honestly, right now it doesn't feel like that. What we're doing is trying to figure out how we can do our small thing to change that--but it's a huge problem.

Alexia: And I think it's becoming more of a national problem. We saw the effects of No Child Left Behind. You see the effects of Race to the Top. There's this idea that there are winners and losers in this situation. Race to the Top requires that we always have 50 percent of our schools failing.

Why can't we all succeed, and why is it competitive, and shouldn't we just be educating everyone? I think we would like to see a little more community control, and student and teacher control in the education system. It's for us--it's not for these broader companies or these national scores and all these graphs. If we really want it to be about the students, it should be about those relationships and sharing what you know. Currently that's not how it is.

Emily: In my Theory of Knowledge class, we were talking about and having a big discussion on education a while ago. One thing that kept on coming up was how we keep being taught everything that somebody up in some building somewhere...

Alexia: (laughs) We joke with International Baccalaureate that it's someone in Switzerland.

Emily: They're deciding what we should be learning. Every year, you're being crammed on this and this and that, but you're missing so many large chunks of information. Like this: I'm going to learn about Christopher Columbus one year and how he's such a great guy. Then, 10 years later, I'll learn about how he's actually a monster, and I'm going to be furious about the fact that I didn't know that.

There has to be a more real way of teaching something all together instead of layering it on top of each other. And then you'll have forgotten something or you'll have missed out on something.

Ujea: Like Alexia was saying, who decides what's important to learn? There's not very much student input into that.

Alexia: Something else that we're facing is that standardized testing is really expensive. We talk about it on the school board [Alexia is also the student representative to the Portland Public School Board] as far as adopting a new budget. There are state requirements that we have to pay for.

The Common Core State Standards are coming, and if we're asking "What if we cannot find a way to afford it?" and they say, "You have to find a way to afford it." And that means you're going to cut teachers to pay for this stuff that we don't want. With that we say you should be funding from the bottom up; you should be funding the most basic things. If we have extra money and want to fund standardized testing, OK, go for it. But at this point, we literally cannot afford this test.

Emily: I understand in some ways you're going to have to have testing. I'm not opposed to testing in general--I'm opposed to high-stakes testing.

Ujea: And the emphasis put on it.

Emily: I didn't learn until 7th grade that my standardized tests weren't actually reflective of me but reflective of my school. And I said, "Oh, I don't care about this anymore. It doesn't matter to me."

I think it's difficult to evaluate the knowledge of a large group of diverse people. And I understand that and I understand where standardized testing came from--because you have to find something that's equal for everyone so you can evaluate how well they're doing or how well the school's doing. But standardized testing has not done this--the idea was OK, but the way it's been implemented is not good.

WHAT OTHER campaigns are the PPS Student Union and the Portland Student Union taking on?

Alexia: On Monday, Gov. John Kitzhaber spoke, and each school board member was able to ask a question. I requested that the governor, PPS Chief Education Officer Dr. Rudy Crew and representatives from a list of other groups--including the Portland Business Alliance, which have been huge advocates for testing--come take our test.

Come get a feel for what it's like to be a public school student, and come see if you think you should be evaluated on these scores and if it's relevant. You're making the decisions for us, yet you don't actually know what these tests are like and how they're affecting education. They responded fairly well and basically said, "Sure, we'll take it."

Our plan is to set up a date to have them come in, sit down and take the tests under PPS conditions--with our grimy computer labs. We agreed that we don't want to use their scores for anything, because we don't believe in using the scores for anything.

The Providence, R.I., student union just did this, and they found that 60 percent of the adults would have failed high school--and not graduated. It's great because everyone is saying, "Wow, I never realized what I was putting on kids."