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Meet One Of The Seattle 'Smarter Balanced' Testing Boycott's Youngest Organizers

Kyle Stokes
Elijah Falk, 16, represents the junior class on the Nathan Hale Senate, a group of parents, teachers, staff, administrators and students that makes formal decisions for the North Seattle high school.

Late last year, Elijah Falk was just another eleventh grader at Seattle's Nathan Hale High School who had never heard of the Smarter Balanced Assessments.

Then a friend told him all about it — that the test was more than eight hours long, required for every high school junior in Washington state but, in the end, mostly unnecessary to earn a diploma.

Falk was shocked.

"The huge amount of testing I've had to go through during my short time as a student— it's taking away from my time in the classroom," Falk said. "That kinda crosses a line where it's not helpful."

So when Nathan Hale High School begins administering the Smarter Balanced exams next week, roughly half of Falk's graduating class won't be taking them. Falk's activism is one reason why.

'There's No Real Benefit To Passing — Or Failing'

Unlike the teacher-led MAP test protest in 2013, the organizational burden of this year's testing backlash has fallen on students and parents. They've played central roles in coordinating boycotts at Nathan Hale and three other Seattle high schools: Garfield, Ingraham and Roosevelt.

Their efforts have worked. Roughly half of the four schools' combined 1,400 eleventh graders are refusing to take the Smarter Balanced exams, which became Washington's benchmark standardized test this year.

Proponents of the test say students' and parents' refusal campaign is self-defeating. Aside from providing students with a clear progress report on their readiness for college, Seattle Public Schools officials say the exam results help the district determine which schools are doing well and which schools need help.

But a national pilot test last year showed more than two-thirds of eleventh graders wouldn't earn scores considered "proficient" on the Smarter Balanced math exams, and Falk says he has already passed the tests he needs to graduate.

"If there’s something you might risk failing, but regardless, you’ll learn something or you’ll be stronger because of it ... that’s great," Falk said. "But if there’s not a real benefit to passing or failing, then it’s not worth it."

'This Has Been Building Over The Years'

In February, a spot for opened up for an eleventh-grade representative on the Nathan Hale Senate — a building leadership team of teachers, administrators, parents and students with formal decision-making powers at the school.

Falk took the seat, and discovered fellow members of the Senate were as concerned about the upcoming Smarter Balanced exams as he was. Staff were growing tired of relinquishing libraries, computer labs and laptop carts for weeks of online testing that often also put classroom projects on hold.

"Over five years," said Meredith Berlin, a parent representative on the Nathan Hale Senate, "I've been hearing more and more conflicts of this sort. 'We can't do our projects with our students because two weeks is blocked out for testing, now three weeks is blocked out for testing, now there's four weeks blocked out for testing.' This has been building over the years."

The federal No Child Left Behind law requires Washington state schools to administer the Smarter Balanced exams to all juniors. But thanks to the state's loss of a waiver from the law's outmoded rating system, Nathan Hale High School is likely to be labeled "failing" regardless of how well students do.

"We call it 'No Child Left Awake,'" joked Lynn Jenson, another parent rep on the Senate. "This test, in fact, leaves a whole bunch of kids behind."

'It Would Be Up To Students And Parents'

On February 24, the Nathan Hale Senate voted 24-1 to boycott the exam. The school's teachers would refuse to administer the exam, only to the juniors, only this school year.

Seattle Public Schools superintendent Larry Nyland took time to meet with Nathan Hale educators and hear out the building's concerns, but eventually was forced to lay down the law. State officials said teachers' refusal to give the test could endanger the district's federal funding, and possibly the state's federal funding as well. On March 19, Nyland told staff any teacher refusing to give the exam risking suspension or termination.

That threat, Falk said, "made it all more real."

"When I saw the the staff and administration at our school was in a tricky position with it and had to follow state law for their own job safety, I realized it was up to the parents and the students to figure this out," Falk said.

So Falk and several fellow junior class officers began visiting classrooms to explain the test and inform students they could tell the school they wouldn't take the exams. Parent reps on the Senate backfilled, sending emails over a PTSA listserv explaining how to submit refusal forms — but also making it clear students and parents had a choice.

"If you are planning to have your child take the SBAC test," Jenson wrote in one message, "we highly recommend that you have them try the practice tests ahead of time, in order to get familiar with this new online testing format."

Need For 'Common Measures'

Officials with the Seattle school district and the state's Superintendent of Public Instruction say there are benefits to taking the tests.

Students who pass the Smarter Balanced exams can use the result to test out of remedial-level coursework at Washington's two- and four-year public colleges. Also, juniors who didn't pass the High School Proficiency Exam — which students are required to pass to graduate — can still technically earn their high school diplomas by passing score on the Smarter Balanced exam to earn their high school diplomas.

Moreover, they say, the test offers students a truer picture of how ready they are for college and provides district officials with critical information.

"Without these assessments, teachers and families would not have a common measure of how students are progressing toward academic goals," said Seattle Public Schools spokeswoman Stacy Howard. "We need the results to determine which resources and supports are needed to improve achievement and close the opportunity gap."

'If We Don't Stand Up, What Chance Do Other Schools Have?'

Despite predictions of low pass rates on the Smarter Balanced exams, Berlin is less concerned with how well Nathan Hale students would perform on the test; she feels they would do fine. But she worries that the time students spend testing would be better-spent with their teachers, working to improve skills that aren't up to snuff. 

"There are many schools at which there are even higher proportions of students who need every hour they can get with their teachers to get those skills," Berlin said. "So if we don’t stand up and say, ‘This is wrong,’ what chance do those other schools have?"

Falk agrees. He's troubled by the amount of classroom time the tests take.

"That's the point of education — at least it should be — to prepare the next generation to be good citizens and better the world in some way," Falk said, "and I think sometimes all this testing gets in the way of that goal."

Nathan Hale students who have not submitted refusal forms will begin Smarter Balanced testing next week.

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