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Seattle's Nathan Hale High Will Not Give Juniors A Required Standardized Test This Year

Joe Wolf
An image of the courtyard at Seattle's Nathan Hale High School.

This spring, juniors at Seattle's Nathan Hale High School will not sit for a federally-required standardized test, a leadership team of staff, students and parents at the school decided this week.

The staff's refusal to administer Smarter Balanced Assessments to eleventh-graders would make Nathan Hale the latest Seattle school to thumb its nose at a standardized test and would fly in the face of the nation's tough school accountability law, the No Child Left Behind Act.

'Why Are We Testing Them ... Over And Over?'

Passing these tests is not necessarily a graduation requirement for high school juniors in Washington. Still, schools across the state must give high school students Smarter Balanced exams to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind. Federal officials have been blunt about what that law says: taking even one year off of testing is a big problem.

But the state's loss of its NCLB waiver effectively guarantees most schools, including Nathan Hale, will fall short of the feds' expectations anyway. On top of that, many members of the Nathan Hale Senate — a team of teachers representing every academic department, six parents and four students — felt the list of standardized tests students must take is already too long.

"If you had a cold or the flu, would you try to get well by taking your temperature over and over? Why are we trying to educate students by testing them over and over?" Nathan Hale principal Jill Hudson wrote in a letter to parents last December.

Minutes of the Nathan Hale Senate's meeting Tuesday show 24 of the 26 members of the group voted to refuse testing this year's juniors.

The Senate, which in Seattle Public Schools parlance functions as the high school's official "building leadership team," has the power to adopt budgets and make official decisions that impact the school.

Superintendent Briefed, Wants To Hear School's Concerns

District officials say they have not decided if or how to respond to Nathan Hale's decision. Seattle Public Schools superintendent Larry Nyland has met with Hudson to discuss the Senate's decision, district spokesperson Peter Daniels said.

Daniels said the district has not altered its policy and will be administering Smarter Balanced tests. He added the district is aware that the exams are linked to NCLB. But Daniels said the superintendent wants to discuss the challenges schools face in both transitioning to new academic standards and in administering a wide array of tests.

"Dr. Nyland wants to hear and understand those concerns from the staff and the Nathan Hale community before formulating a next step. Part of that is engaging with that community so that we can resolve this cooperatively and in a collaborative fashion," Daniels said.

What's At Stake For Students

Though students can pass Smarter Balanced tests to meet graduation requirements, this year's junior class at Nathan Hale can take other exams to meet state graduation requirements.

Parents in Washington state can opt their children out of non-mandatory statewide tests, or refuse to allow them to take required exams, though state officials discourage the practice.

Teachers, too, have refused to give required tests in the past. Here in Seattle, Garfield High School teachers made national headlines in 2013 by refusing to administer the Measures of Academic Progress or "MAP" tests, which were linked to teacher evaluations.

What's At Stake For The School & The State

But the MAP tests weren't linked to NCLB, unlike the Smarter Balanced tests Nathan Hale staff are refusing to administer. State education officials say that means the consequences of Nathan Hale's decision have the potential to be more serious.

Nathan Olson, a spokesperson for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, pointed to a recent letter U.S. Department of Education officials sent to the Illinois State Board of Education, affirming that local school districts risk losing their federal funding if they refuse to administer tests linked to No Child Left Behind.

Olson also notes students can use Smarter Balanced scores to test out of remedial college coursework at Washington's public colleges and universities. Nathan Hale Senate meeting minutes show staff members did weigh that factor in their decision, but decided students would be able to test into appropriate college coursework in other ways.

State superintendent Randy Dorn "does sympathize with the overriding concern about overtesting," Olson added.

In a post on the blog of Seattle teacher-activist Jesse Hagopian, who helped lead the Garfield testing boycott in 2013, Nathan Hale teacher Doug Edelstein — who is not a member of the Senate — welcomed the decision.

"This is an important step. Nathan Hale is asserting its commitment to valid, reliable, equitable assessment," Edelstein wrote. "This decision is the result of community and parent meetings, careful study of research literature, knowledge of our students’ needs, commitment to excellence in their education, and adherence to the values and ideas of best-practice instruction."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.