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Governor, education leaders take on testing issue at town hall

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Lincoln High senior Alexia Garcia (left) has used her position as student representative to the Portland School Board to start a conversation about testing - a hot-button issue here and nationally.Oregon Chief Education Officer Rudy Crew says the state “has gone completely crazy with test mania.”

He admitted as much Monday evening at the Portland School Board Town Hall at Madison High School, an event he attended with Gov. John Kitzhaber to talk about education reform, school funding and other topics posed by board members and student leaders.

The subject of high-stakes standardized testing was raised by Alexia Garcia, a senior at Lincoln High School who serves as the student representative on the school board.

Garcia and the Portland Student Union — a new districtwide student collective she helped to organize — have spent the past two months speaking out on the topic.

They’ve joined teachers and students in other states who are boycotting the tests, calling them a waste of money, inefficient use of teaching and learning time, and a poor judge of actual student or school performance.

“We’re stopping class to do something ridiculous,” says Garcia, who proposes that student portfolios be used instead. “You’ll be having a good lesson, building a relationship with the teacher, then take this test that is not necessarily related to the curriculum or the style of writing we’re talking about.”

In January, Garcia announced that students could request to opt out of testing through an official district form that requires a parent signature and is only allowed for disability or religious reasons.

“People can say ‘I have my belief to opt out,’ “ Garcia says. “(The term) ‘political belief’ aligns with that.”

So far, the campaign has seemed to infiltrate only Lincoln and Grant high schools. Two students at both Lincoln and Grant have opted out for “religious reasons.” All four are juniors.

“I have no concern whatsoever for my chances of getting in to college,” Lincoln junior Katie Kelly, one of the students who opted out, told the Tribune this week. “Proficiency can be proven through SAT, ACT or PSAT scores. Based on my PSAT scores (a test that is already provided by my school), I have already proven proficiency in math. Science is not a graduation requirement, so I don’t need to prove proficiency in that subject. The OAKS test is only a statewide requirement, and national requirements can be fulfilled in a variety of ways.”

The student publications at both Lincoln and Grant have written about the issue: Lincoln’s Cardinal Times story was published last week and the Grant Magazine story is online now at

Students protest

Lincoln and Grant administrators have handled the issue differently.

In an online listserv message to parents, Lincoln Principal Peyton Chapman applauded the students’ passion but encouraged them to use their voice at the state Legislature instead of opting out.

If five percent of students at a school opt out of a test, the federal government will label the school “in need of improvement,” which would surely affect Lincoln’s image and impact future enrollment, she wrote to parents.

Grant, on the other hand, is the only PPS school that has posted a link to the opt-out form on the school’s main Web page. It’s just below a link to a “Quick Guide to OAKS & Essential Skills Requirements,” which accompanies a short message from Vice Principal Kristyn Westphal.

“We have been receiving some inquiries about opting out of OAKS testing,” Westphal wrote. “We want to make sure you are aware that students are required by the state to meet OAKS requirements in reading, writing and math (based on year of high school entry) in order to graduate. There are some alternate ways of meeting OAKS requirements; we are including them for your reference in the attached table.”

Grant Principal Vivien Orlen is handling it diplomatically.

“I have personally initialed each form,” she says. “If the student has checked religious reason, I’m not going to check what that is. If it’s signed by their parents, I would initial it.”

Last Thursday, Grant was the site of a districtwide walkout to call attention to the opt-out campaign. The Portland Student Union had organized it via Facebook and managed to get 15 to 30 students to show up during school. Three of them then went to Salem that day to talk with legislators about the issue.

An opt-out rally in front of district headquarters in February drew a larger crowd.

High stakes testing

Standardized testing has always been a hot-button issue, but it came to the forefront in January with Garcia’s proclamation of the opt-out campaign during a school board meeting.

Her seat on the school board has elevated the student voice to a level it might not have achieved if she wasn’t on the school board.

For example, she engaged Kitzhaber and Crew in discussion about testing for 10 minutes of Monday’s 90-minute town hall, directly challenging them and other state education leaders to take the standardized tests themselves.

Both Kitzhaber and Crew appeared to accept her challenge, sealing it with a fist-bump.

Kitzhaber jokingly asked what would happen if they didn’t make the grade: “Then what, we’re out?”

Crew took a more introspective look at the question.

“I’m not one of these people who’s anti-test people, I do believe that there’s a reason to test someone,” he said. “I think we have just gone completely crazy with test mania, and we have no real value for even what we get when we test. The numbers are almost useless. People are trying to make huge decisions about this, and sadly they make some decision about whether a school is a bad school or a good school. We just have to kind of shift our brain to being able to think about a new and different way to do this work.”

He said the state has to work within the confines of federal law, but feels like Oregon could be on the forefront of shifting to a more “sane, civil and effective and ultimately more professional use” of assessing students.

In Oregon, standardized testing became “high stakes” under the federal No Child Left Behind Law, which uses the test results to determine school sanctions. Oregon’s NCLB waiver — which led to the new Oregon Education Achievement Compact — granted Oregon the freedom from that rating system, but came with strings attached.

One has to do with using high-stakes standardized testing as part of teacher and administrator evaluations.

The Portland Association of Teachers argues that Oregon law doesn’t require the use of high-stakes testing for teaching evaluations.

The PAT believes its evaluation tool currently meets the requirements of Oregon Senate Bill 290, passed in 2011 — which does not require the use of testing.

“In order to meet the waiver, (the state is) trying to interpret the law in a particular way,” says Kevin Mechling, a member of the PAT-PPS evaluation commitee.

“It is common knowledge that the OAKS test is not a learning tool; the OAKS test provides baseline information about our students or schools,” PAT President Gwen Sullivan wrote to teachers in the Feb. 11 issue of her member newsletter, The Advocate.

“Teachers, parents and the community know that our students’ knowledge is much more than a score,” Sullivan adds. “Being forced to teach to a test is not true education; it certainly isn’t the schools our students deserve.”

PPS spokeswoman Erin Hoover Barnett says the district supports students expressing their opinions and the fact that there are alternatives to the state tests.

At the same time, she says the OAKS tests are used to demonstrate what students know and whether they meet state requirements to graduate from high school.

“We want more students to graduate, not fewer,” she says. “And when students are encouraged by their peers to opt out of tests, the stakes are higher for students who may already face barriers to graduation, which is disproportionately students of color.”

Union chief: Testing doesn't benefit our children

Portland Association of Teachers President Gwen Sullivan takes her issues to heart: she's the parent of a son and daughter in Portland Public Schools.

She recently staged her own boycott, sending a letter to her son's middle school and daughter's elementary school to inform them that her children will not be participating in state standardized testing this school year.

She asked that "no record of this testing be part of (the child's) record, the teachers' record or school/state report cards."

Here is the rest of the letter from Sullivan and her husband:

"We believe high stakes testing:

• Is not scientifically based on learning

• Fosters test-driven education that is not meeting the individual/intellectual needs of students

• Presents a racial and economic bias that is beneficial to white middle/upper-class students and detrimental to second-language students, impoverished students, and students of color

• Supports corporate interests rather than the interests of individual students

• Fosters coercion over cooperation with regards to federal funding for public education

• Uses the achievement gap to foster segregation that has resulted in separate and unequal education for minorities

We understand that federal law provides the parent or guardian the right of choice regarding standardized testing when such testing violates spiritual beliefs. In contrast to our spiritual beliefs, which are firmly rooted in a moral code that embraces equity and fairness, we believe OAKS testing is not in the best interests of our child. Ultimately, our state is required to provide our child with an education in a least restrictive environment that does not force us to go against our spiritual beliefs.

Therefore, we request that the school provide appropriate learning activities during the testing window and utilize an alternative assessment portfolio or teacher created assessment to fulfill promotion requirements, as our child opts out of standardized testing.

— Gwen and Dirk Sullivan"

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