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Garfield High School Teacher Heather Robison’s Conscientious Test Objector Declaration

With so many students having opted out of the Common Core tests, the teachers are no longer being asked to administer the examu2014a huge victory in this struggle against the testocracy!

With so many students having opted out of the Common Core tests

Today marks the fist day scheduled for Common Core testing, such as it is, at Seattle’s Garfield High School. As I reported last week, Garfield educators were debating about how best to oppose the new deeply flawed Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) Common Core tests, when the parents spoke and opted out hundreds of students from the test. With so many students having opted out of the Common Core tests, the teachers are no longer being asked to administer the exam—a huge victory in this struggle against the testocracy! (Now the few remaining students who don’t have an opt out letter will be pulled out of class individually).

Garfield High School teacher Heather Robison delivers her declaration at a recent press conference.

During the period when Garfield teachers thought they were going to be asked to administer the SBAC Common Core test, Heather Robison, an inspiration in the struggle for authentic assessment, decided she would be a conscientious test objector. What fallows is Ms. Robison’s courageous and deeply insightful declaration, issued to the Seattle Public Schools and the politicians who legislate education—with a challenge for them to take the very exams they are pushing on our schools!

Once you have read Ms. Robison’s words, it will be clear that educators should be driving assessment rather than multibillion-dollar companies. And it should also be clear why we are going to win this struggle.

Dear Superintendent Nyland, Seattle Public School Board, Legislators, and educational policy makers,

I am a National Board Certified teacher with a Master’s Degree in English and two years of Doctoral-level coursework in Curriculum and Instruction. I have twelve years of teaching experience, ten working in public high schools and two at the University level. I am passionate in my work, and have rigorous expectations for my students and myself.

I currently teach at Garfield High School, where half of my day is spent with Advanced Placement students who represent some of the most privileged and highest performing children in our city. The other half of my day is spent with General Education students, over a quarter of whom receive Special Education services. Across all sections, I have homeless students, students with restraining orders against abusers, students who read and write below grade level, students who currently read and write at a college level, and students who vacation in Europe every spring.

From this vantage point, my conscience demands that I publicly and emphatically assert that high-stakes standardized tests like the SBA used as graduation requirements and teacher evaluations tools are detrimental to the meaningful education of ALL of my students. Administering such exams goes against my professional and moral judgment.

For ALL of my students, these tests are a waste of time in which they are forced to be passive test-takers rather than active knowledge creators. This year’s proposed test took over two weeks of instructional time from classes. Superintendent Nyland, a recent email from you stated, “the amount of SBA testing time for each individual student is relatively small (about eight hours depending on grade level).” What a drastically skewed perspective that sentence reveals. Eight hours is an enormous time investment for an unreliable and inappropriately used assessment, enough to push an entire unit from the year’s curriculum.

For my students who are victims of the opportunity gap, the SBA disproportionately hurts their identity as capable learners and instead reinforces an identity of failure. These exams can only ever show a limited sample of student ability, and the cultural bias inherent in any standardized assessment exacerbates the SBA’s inability to reveal what my students truly know and can do.

Even if the SBA were a more reliable, valid, and culturally responsive measure of student ability, the learning environment created around it devalues true intellectual curiosity, risk-taking, and critical thinking. For ALL of my students,high-stakes tests breed a reductive mindset of “Will this be on the test?” and myopic focus on points rather than learning.

Yet students crave authentic challenges, and on a gut level they recognize the faults of a test-based system. When I first announced the upcoming SBA exams to my 11th graders, multiple hands shot up and asked, “Can we opt out of this?” These are high-performing students who are the most likely to succeed on this test, yet they were frustrated at the prospect of losing class time for this detached and inauthentic measure of their performance.

Measures that identify students in need of extra help are an essential part of an effective education system, but they must not be attached to high stakes. Doing so invalidates them as a true diagnostic tool intended to help children and their teachers.

We need high standards for our educational systems, and we must do more to prepare all of our students to be successful in a demanding and complex world. Exams like the SBA do not take us in that direction. My teaching practice and that of my peers asks students to do far more than these exams do. We crave authentic and challenging modes of assessment.

Please consider the work of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which has opted out of standardized tests since 1997 and instead built an assessment system developed, evaluated, and continually revised by actual educators. Instead of taking tests, students are given ownership of their own project-based learning, which includes evaluation by community professionals in the discipline. This group of schools has some of the highest rates of college admittance with one of the lowest rates of college attrition. Their success was achieved with a true range of students pulled from the economic and cultural diversity of New York City neighborhoods.

Standardized exams like the SBA also rob teachers of critical aspects of the assessment process. As educators, taking part in the design of assessment tasks for students and evaluating them in a collaborative and peer-reviewed process is an essential part of best practices. The SBA compartmentalizes and fractures this dynamic process and cuts teachers off from invaluable information and opportunities for reflection about their students and their tools of instruction and assessment.

Policy makers—in teaching and learning there are no shortcuts. Exams like the SBA attempt to shortcut, streamline, and profitize the education system. This benefits test makers, but not students. The schools are a reflection of the social problems of the larger society. If we truly want to close the gaps and inequities in our social institutions, we must address issues of poverty and income inequality. That is a tall order, but the work of the Consortium schools shows an alternative that can offer meaningful success for ALL students.

At home I have a three-year-old son. He is an exuberant, boundary-pushing little boy who will enter kindergarten the fall of 2016. I feel such anxiety at the thought of subjecting him to a learning environment founded on SBA. He is filled with joy and innate curiosity to learn and experiment, a joy that I seek to coax alive in my own students.

I challenge you to go online and take the practice tests of the SBA. Compare that experience to the approach of New York Consortium schools. Which would you prefer for your own child?

Finally, please listen to me. Please recognize my expertise and consider my professional opinion. I work to challenge my students and myself with research-supported best practices for ALL students. Trust and consider the informed opinion of so many of my peers who ask to end high-stakes testing. On a daily basis, we see the damage testing wreaks on our efforts for authentic education, and the disproportionate damage inflicted on our most vulnerable students.


Heather Robison

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