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More Seattle High Schoolers Refusing To Take Required Tests, Forcing Garfield To Improvise

Kyle Stokes
Anti-testing activist and Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian, right, speaks during a press conference at the Seattle King County NAACP office.

This week, eleventh graders at Seattle's Garfield High School were supposed to start taking a state- and federally-required standardized test of their English skills.

But more than 200 Garfield juniors, who don't need to pass the exams to graduate, are refusing to take Smarter Balanced assessments, forcing school administrators to postpone giving the exams until they could come up with a new testing schedule.

It's another visible sign of growing frustration among Seattle Public Schools parents and students with the Smarter Balanced exams, which became Washington's official standardized test this year.

Unprecedented Refusal Numbers

Taken together, Roosevelt, Ingraham and Garfield high schools enroll nearly 1,100 juniors — and "approximately half" of them at each school are refusing to take the Smarter Balanced tests, according to Seattle Public Schools spokeswoman Stacy Howard.

And then there's Nathan Hale High School, where teachers and administrators had planned to refuse to give the Smarter Balanced tests until superintendent Larry Nyland threatened them with disciplinary action. But some Nathan Hale students and parents are pressing on with test boycott plans.

According to Nathan Hale teacher Doug Edelstein, more than 140 students at that school — also roughly half of the school's junior class — have turned in testing refusal forms.

For comparison, consider that more than 3,000 high schoolers sat for the 10th grade High School Proficiency Exam last year — and fewer than 60 refused to take it.

'Waste Of Time'? Or Vital Means Of Comparison?

Schools statewide must administer the Smarter Balanced tests this year to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind law. This year's sophomore class will have to pass the English portion of the new test to graduate. This year's eighth graders will be the first required to pass Smarter Balanced math tests to earn diplomas. But significant portions of this year's junior class fulfilled their graduation requirements by taking other tests.

But in a written statement, state superintendent Randy Dorn said the test remains a valuable source of information.

"Families and schools deserve to know if students are on a path to success after high school. And students need extra support when they aren’t. If they don’t test, it’s more difficult to identify what skills they lack and how best to help them," said Dorn.

But anti-testing activist Jesse Hagopian says the test could be demoralizing for students. National field tests show only roughly one in three students will score high enough on the exams to be considered "proficient" in language arts and math.

"That is abuse. That is not an education plan, yet that is what's rolling out in our state and in states across this country," said Hagopian, also a Garfield High School teacher. "That's why we're standing up and saying 'no' to this test."

Seattle Public Schools officials say refusing to test hurts more than schools' pass rates. Spokeswoman Stacy Howard said the tests provide a "common measure" district officials can use to compare schools' relative progress — and direct help where it's needed.

"We need the results to determine which resources and supports are needed to improve achievement and close the opportunity gap," Howard said in a statement.

At a Tuesday press conference to discuss the unprecedented refusal numbers, Garfield teacher Heather Robison said administering the Smarter Balanced exams "goes against my professional and moral judgment."

"For all of my students," she said, "these tests are a waste of time."

This post has been updated.

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