1000-plus Boulder students join standardized test sit-out protest

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]tudents from at least three Boulder Valley School District high schools staged protests Thursday and plan to protest again on Friday by sitting out scheduled standardized social studies and science tests known as CMAS.

The Boulder students are among seniors from across the state who are opting out of the Colorado Measure of Academic Success test being administered throughout November. The students say the tests waste valuable instruction time, have no bearing on their transcripts or college admissions, don’t conform to curriculum and just add one more test to the alphabet soup they’ve been subjected to throughout their education.

“The test is not an accurate representation of my learning or the teachers’ instruction,” said Andrew McGraw, a senior at Douglas County’s Mountain Vista High School who has opted out. “And they won’t mean anything. The results won’t be back until next fall. I’ll already be in college by then.”

The test is a pilot being administered for the first time this year under state law. Joyce Zurkowski, director of assessment for the Colorado Department of Education, said the tests initially were scheduled to be given to 11th graders, but because the students already were taking other standardized tests, officials decided to move the tests to the fall of 12th grade, when no other tests were given.

She noted that although first year test results usually take longer to process, “our goal is to have these scores back in the hands of the districts before the end of the school year.”

Of about 100,000 total tests, about 60,000 have been completed as of Wednesday, Zurkowski said.

Parents must notify the school that their children will not take the test. Otherwise, it will be counted as an unexcused absence.

Andrew McGraw’s mother, Karen McGraw, said she sees “no benefit in CMAS. The tests are not being considered by college admissions offices. They don’t care. They care about the ACT scores.”

A student at East High School who asked not to be named said her parents sent an email to the school saying she would not take the test, scheduled for Wednesday and today.  She said several other East seniors have opted out as well.

“We’re the guinea pigs,” she said. “And the tests won’t do anything for us in our senior year.”

In addition, she said the tests pose questions not included in current curriculum.

A couple of weeks ago, seniors at East were able to see sample tests online. The samples included questions about civics, which seniors are not required to take until their second semester.

The test also includes questions about economics, which is not required, and biology, which many students took in their freshman year.

Zurkowski said the social studies and civics questions are a result of conversations state legislators had with business leaders concerned about what they saw a students’ lack of knowledge about such issues as government and economics.

“That’s the point,” Zurkowski said. “Without an assessment to gather information, our fear is that it’s not being taught. We want touch points to make sure these are not neglected disciplines. The goal is for schools and districts to have conversations about the results and make relevant adjustments to programming the following year. From a social studies perspective, we’ve never had that information at a state level.”

The Boulder students have kicked the CMAS opt-out movement up a notch. In addition to the two days of protests at Fairview High School, Centaurus High School in Lafayette and Broomfield High School, they also plan to write letters to state legislators as well as hold food and school supply drives. They’re encouraging underclassmen, who won’t attend school during the testing periods, to participate as well.

Jessica Piper a senior at Fairview and a member of the school’s CMAS protest team, said students decided to join forces to create a letter students could sign (see below), organize the protests and produce a video in which a variety of students outline their objections. They also put together other informational material including a pamphlet and FAQs about the protests.

“This is not just a day to sleep in or skip school,” Piper said. “We’re not just trying to get out of taking a test. This is a much broader issue.”

In their letter, which includes footnotes, the students argue the CMAS test is a pilot program that doesn’t represent material taught in Colorado high schools and that standardized tests don’t accurately measure teacher or student performance. They also argue the tests are expensive, particularly at a time when school funding is being cut. They say the CMAS test is developed by Pearson, a for-profit corporation, not educators.

Piper said more than 400 students had signed the letter so far and that at least 350 students are expected at the Fairview protest.

The students contacted Boulder Valley administrators, who have been “supportive” and have said the protests won’t cause repercussions, Piper said. “We were assured that this will be a safe process for kids.”

Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger said he has talked to the student protest groups and that the district has agreed to provide an area where students can gather “to be heard, but not disrupt students who want to take the tests.”

In addition, because of the cold weather, the district will make arrangements to make sure they are protected and safe.

Messinger has also watched the protest teams’ video and read their material. “They’re being very thoughtful and mature and respectful in their organization and communication,” he said. “I don’t know if you could ask for anything more.”

Messinger said more than 1,200 students have opted out so far.

Some school district officials have warned that the schools face serious ramifications if too many students opt out. They say Colorado schools must maintain a 95 percent participation rate in exams or face a drop in accreditation and even sanctions.

Michael Weaver, principal at Mountain Vista High School in Douglas County, sent a letter to parents on Oct. 31 saying notifications from parents opting out of the test put the school below the 95 percent participation rate, putting the school at risk of not meeting its accreditation and certification standards. He asked parents to “consider the big picture” and make sure their children take the tests.

But Zurkowski said a drop in accreditation is unlikely. The state considers “good-faith attempts” by schools to test the students on initial testing days as well as make-up days. A school that has scheduled initial testing, has made computers available for the online tests and directs students to take the tests has made such a good-faith attempt, she said. In addition, if parents choose not to send their children to school, neither the school nor the district is held responsible for the parents’ decision.

The CMAS controversy is just the most recent in a growing movement against standardized testing that began with the No Child Left Behind Act and continued into the Race to the Top initiative. For every CSAP, TCAP and PARCC test, increasing numbers of parents and students are choosing to refuse to participate.

“Choose to refuse” is the motto of United Opt Out, which seeks to end what it calls corporate education reform.

The Colorado page of the website, includes information about the CMAS test throughout the state and includes a sample letter parents can send to remove their children from the test.

In response to the criticism, the state legislature established a task force to study statewide testing and report findings and make recommendations in January.

But rather than focus on testing, students say the funds used to finance the tests could be put to better use on smaller classes and art and music classes, for example.

“We believe that funding and resources that are allocated to standardized tests could be more effectively used to enrich the school courses themselves to be more interactive and engaging,” Boulder Valley School District students wrote in their letter.


is a veteran journalist based in Denver. She worked at Sentinel Newspapers and spent more than 17 years at the Rocky Mountain News covering politics, government and business, among myriad other topics.