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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

End-of-year tests add hurdles to education system

Tomie Tsosie Leeds made the honor roll again with a 3.5 grade-point average.

Now if he can only graduate.

Leeds, a 17-year-old who is finishing his junior year at Rogers High School, is a member of the National Honor Society and an ACE scholar. He takes Advanced Placement courses to earn college credit. And he’s also been unable to pass the “end-of-course” biology test, which puts his graduation next year in jeopardy.

It’s a ridiculous consequence of the current testing regime – a numbing combination of federal, state and district testing that is choking the ingenuity and the life and the dollars out of education – and Leeds recently shared his opinion of it with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn at a retirement dinner for a teacher.

“I am here today to ask you, Mr. Dorn, how can my mom, my sister and I help you make the changes needed to make sure this doesn’t continue, to help the children and students you represent succeed?” Leeds asked.

Dorn, according to Leeds and his mother, Jenn Leeds, didn’t respond.

The truth is, we’re in so deep with testing at this point that it would take a revolution to untangle it. The testing-industrial complex has grown so intimately tied into funding, and so closely intertwined with curricular decisions and district goals, that it’s hard to envision any escape route.

A couple of weeks ago, teachers walked off the job for a day, in part to protest the testing burdens. But I suspect that there won’t be much change until parents and teachers go on a bigger, louder and longer strike against the tests. As the school year comes to a close, it’s a good time for parents to consider whether opting out of the tests makes sense.

The state tests students in third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and 11th grades. Passing the final test is a graduation requirement, though there are some other ways students can meet that requirement. Parents can opt out if they choose, and for most grades, this doesn’t carry much of a consequence for students, but it does for their schools – one of the yardsticks by which schools are judged, and given federal funding, is whether enough of their students are taking the test.

This connection between testing and money is a major obstacle to change. If, hypothetically, all Washington parents were to rise up and demand an end to the testing regime, it could only be done by risking the loss of substantial sources of federal support.

It’s a trap, in other words. And there is another limitation to the opt-out question: Parents can choose to skip the tests, but it’s impossible to “opt out” of the oppressive test-prep environment without leaving public schools altogether.

Raschelle Holland is a longtime educator who now works as a math coach at Stevens Elementary. Her 8-year-old son is finishing second grade. She has grown increasingly frustrated by the expanded testing, and she’s now wondering whether she should put her son in private school. She has started a blog about the issue, and become a passionate advocate for the opt-out movement.

“When I first started teaching, we had testing,” she said. “It was an hour of math and an hour of reading and we were done. Now what I see is hours and hours and hours and hours of test prep.”

She has a lot of different objections to the tests, and the primary one is this: They are choking off many of the ways that children actually learn, at different rates and in different circumstances and by doing all kinds of different things that are not sitting at a desk and answering test questions. She’s concerned about the influence of big money from the testing companies, and the potential for abuse as more data on students is collected.

It is easy to look at any one test and see it as no big deal. It’s easy to think that schools should be more accountable, and should have a nice, simple number by which we can judge them. But it’s a mistake to boil down the complexities of any given school into a number that simply does not say what it pretends to say.

The biggest, easiest reason to be dubious about this “accountability” is the connection between academic performance and family income. The loop of testing is a snake eating its tail: the neediest students generally do worse on the tests, which leads to identifying their schools as “failing,” which allows parents to flee the school leaving the toughest problems behind, which motivates exactly zero teachers to want to jump in there and wrestle with the difficult problems – and then it’s time for another test.

“It used to be, ‘How do kids learn multiplication? What’s a good strategy?’ ” Holland said. “Now the conversation is, ‘What do we need to do to get these kids to pass the test?’ ”

Travis Schulhauser, director of assessment and program effectiveness for Spokane Public Schools, said he hears a lot of concerns about testing. If parents want to opt out, they are free to do so, he said, though the district encourages parents to talk to their principal about it.

This year, forty-six Spokane students opted out of the state’s Smarter Balance testing in grades three through eight. In 11th grade, that figure was 225.

Tomie Leeds grew up in Utah, in a home he described as an “abusive, neglectful and unsanitary environment,” and he missed a lot of junior high. He moved to Spokane in 2012 to live with his uncle and aunt, Michael and Jenn Leeds, and he was adopted last year. A bright student with lots of academic gaps, he has sometimes done well and sometimes struggled.

Still, in the context of his background, his academic achievement is a triumph. He has done well in his classes at Rogers, and taken college-prep classes. As a junior, this is the year that the high-stakes tests really kick in – students have to pass the tests to graduate. Tomie has struggled with the biology test, narrowly failing it twice.

That puts his graduation in jeopardy, though there are other ways he may meet the requirements – if he meets certain scores on his ACT or SATs, for example. He hopes to continue on to college to study music.

Jenn Leeds insists that it doesn’t make sense to judge a student’s success – and by implication the student’s chances of future success – by a single measure. She has a daughter entering the first grade, and she already knows what she’s going to do when the tests start rolling around in third grade.

“I’m opting her out,” she said. “What’s happening right now, to our kids, is unacceptable.”

Columnist Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.