Testing Boycott Spreads to Portland High Schools and Beyond

Students and educators across the country consider following the lead set by teachers in Seattle.

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Protests against high-stakes tests spread after a group of teachers refused to give exams they say are irrelevant.
Protests against high-stakes tests spread after a group of teachers refused to give exams they say are irrelevant.

Feigning sickness to avoid a big test is one of the oldest tricks in the teen playbook, but high school students at Portland Public Schools aim to take it a step further.

Members of the Portland Student Union launched an "Opt Out" campaign earlier this month, urging peers to boycott the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills exams, a series of state-mandated standardized tests.

While their organized protest may warm the hearts of civics teachers, opting out of the state-mandated exams could jeopardize students' chances of graduating. Oregon students must pass the reading, math, and writing portions of the exam in order to receive a high school diploma.

Those who boycott the exams would need to prove their proficiency through alternative means, likely via scores from a different standardized test such as the ACT, SAT, or various Advanced Placement exams, according to the student union's website.

[Learn how to help your teen prep for the SAT.]

"We are choosing to opt-out of the OAKS tests as they are tests that directly waste class time, and are used as a form of evaluation of our schools," the group wrote, noting that the other exams are required for college admission or allow students to earn college credit. "These tests are beneficial to students in comparison to the OAKS test that literally have zero benefit to students."

Portland students are not the only ones taking a stand against standardized testing. Teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle announced in December they would not administer the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) exams to their students.

The educators voted unanimously to boycott the tests, which students take several times a year for teachers to gauge academic progress, arguing that the exams test students on concepts they are not taught and waste time, money, and staffing resources.

"We at Garfield are not against accountability or demonstrating student progress. We do insist on a form of assessment relevant to what we're teaching in the classroom," Jesse Hagopian, a social studies teacher at Garfield, wrote in an op-ed to the Seattle Times. "Some of my colleagues would propose replacing the MAP with a test that is aligned to our curriculum."

Parents, educators, and students in Seattle and across the country have voiced support for the teachers at Garfield, who face disciplinary action if they refuse to end their boycott.

[Read three ideas for modernizing the U.S. education system.]

While Garfield educators are protesting a specific set of low-stakes tests that are not required by the state, teachers unions in cities such as Chicago used the boycott as a springboard to advocate for the elimination of all high-stakes testing.

But students shouldn't get their hopes up. Standardized tests aren't going away anytime soon, nor should they, Celine Coggins, founder and CEO of Teach Plus, a national advocacy group made up of teachers, recently wrote in Education Week.

"Despite the myriad imperfections of our current fragmented testing system, assessment data has allowed us … to gain a clear-eyed view of the staggering size of the achievement gaps," she noted. "It is the starting point in ensuring that the highest-need students are assigned effective, experienced teachers."

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