What to make of recent events in Colorado, where thousands of high school seniors refused to take a state-mandated standardized test? Is this a harbinger of things to come, an American version of “Arab Spring,” or was it an isolated incident with slight significance beyond the Rocky Mountain State?
These days most eyes are on Washington because Republicans have won control of both houses of Congress, but perhaps the big story in 2015 will be a louder student ‘voice’ about what goes on in schools.
At least 5,000 Colorado high school seniors opted out of the tests, given Thursday and Friday, November 13th and 14th.
I spent a fair amount of time on the phone with three Fairview high school seniors talking about the protest, Natalie Griffin (17), Jonathan Snedeker (also 17), and Jennifer Jun (18), all college-bound next year, and all remarkably articulate.  At their high school, 98% of the seniors opted out. Across the state, nearly 40% refused to take the test known as CMAS.
Given over two days, CMAS was designed to measure student knowledge of social studies and science. “It’s a no-stakes test for us,” Jonathan Snedeker explained. “The district and the state want data they can use to judge teachers and schools.” And, they say, Colorado is spending $36 million on the test, money they would like to see used to benefit their education.
Students from twelve Colorado high schools  wrote and posted an “open letter” to the citizens of Colorado explaining their decision to opt out. The letter, which presents five points of concern, is worth reading in its entirety. These two sentences jumped out at me:
We have been subjected to larger class sizes, cuts to art, music, and extracurricular activities, and fewer opportunities in school. Our reward for putting up with these difficulties is more standardized testing with questionable purposes and monetary costs.
The students have a clear goal: They want Colorado to restrict mandated standardized testing to the number required under federal law (grades 3-8 and 10 in English and math), and no more.
When I spoke with Natalie and Jennifer, they had just come indoors, after standing in zero degree weather in front of their high school. “We have 555 seniors who were supposed to take the test,” Natalie told me. “Well before today, the school had gotten opt-out letters from 435 of us, meaning they expected 120 to take the test.” That didn’t happen, she said happily. “Only 7 kids showed up for the test.” 
It was clear that these young people thought this through carefully and recognize the importance of being for something even as they were standing together against the test. And so, many protesters spent the testing time working in a food bank or organizing a food drive, while others worked on a email campaign directed at the Legislative Task Force that will be recommending a new policy on testing for Colorado. I asked if adults, including teachers, were helping them behind the scenes, and all three vigorously denied adult involvement.
“We used social media to communicate,” one told me, including Twitter, Google Docs and Google Drive. A Facebook page? I asked. “No, because a Facebook page would have been open to anyone, and we did not want that,” Jennifer told me, and so they created a Facebook Event, accessible only by students. The students told me that they kept their principal in the loop, because they did not want their school to be penalized by the state. 
Opting out is not new , but something important seems to be happening here: savvy students with a clear goal using social media to communicate with each other, the citizens of Colorado, and–now–with a national audience.
What’s happening in Colorado emphasizes the importance of seeing students–not teachers– as the primary workers in schools. Students are, borrowing Peter Drucker’s term, “knowledge workers.” They are most certainly not manual workers. 
Because they are knowledge workers, they must be doing meaningful work that they can respect. Their view of the work matters, and, while they don’t get to decide what to do, their voices must be heard. (So too must teachers’ voices be heard, of course, because top-down decision-making almost always produces poor learning.)
I am occasionally asked what I think we should expect in education now that the Republicans control both Houses of Congress. From Washington, not much. But I expect to hear more ‘voices’ from outside our Nation’s capital, the voices of parents , teachers  and–especially–students.
Savvy students, fed up with being treated as numbers, may take to social media and organize opting out and other protests against what they deem to be excessive testing. They’ll have to push away adults, left and right, who will want to guide (and control) them, or simply take credit for what the kids are doing. If they are savvy (as the Colorado students seem to be), they will be FOR stuff, and not just against this test or that one. They will have to educate the adults in charge, not an easy task. They will be taking on entrenched economic interests like Pearson, the College Board and others who profit from testing.
But if students are the knowledge workers in schools, then they have a right to be doing interesting and valuable work. As protester Jonathan Snedeker told me, “We spend too much time being tested, and not enough time learning.”
- 1. Jennifer describes herself as a political moderate. She hopes to go to Stanford, Georgetown or Penn and study international diplomacy. Jonathan hopes to study molecular biology at Johns Hopkins. Natalie, who works part time in the biology lab at UC Boulder, has applied to Brown, Princeton, Emory, Northwestern, Duke and the University of Virginia.↵
- 2. Mostly seniors, but a few underclassmen and some graduates also signed it.↵
- 3. She later corrected that number. Actually NINE showed up, out of 555. That’s less than 2%. At least one of the nine took the test because one of her parents is a teacher and she feared that opting out would jeopardize her job, Natalie told me. On day 2, ten seniors took the test.↵
- 4. Schools are required to demonstrate that they made an “adequate effort” to test at least 95% of students or risk censure by the state. Student organizers urged students to send in an opt-out notice to the principal’s office so the school would know how many computers and proctors it would need to have on testing days.↵
- 5. It happened before in other places, of course. Some students at an elite high school in New York City opted out of a test in the fall of 2013 because they believed that the goal was to play gotcha with their teachers. FairTest publishes a weekly ‘scorecard’ of protests against excessive testing, which you can find here http://fairtest.org/news The list is growing, although not every item is an example of direct action. While some label FairTest as ‘anti-testing,’ its stated position is in favor of ‘testing resistance and reform.’↵
- 6. I am indebted to Deborah Kenny for reminding me of Drucker’s insights. Her book, Born to Rise, is well worth your time, if you haven’t already discovered it. (Harper Collins 2012) Dr. Kenny also writes about kaizen, the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement in all aspects of an organization.↵
- 7. Some 22 states have passed or are seriously considering passing what are called “parent trigger” laws. Much of the activity is in California. Politico’s Morning Education reports “More than 400 families from across the country will gather this weekend at a trade college in Los Angeles for a “Parent Power Convention” hosted by Parent Revolution, the education reform group that lobbied hard for California’s parent trigger law. Expect a lot of talk about the Vergara decision striking down teacher tenure in California – and how that landmark court case can be replicated in other states.” (November 14)
California is the site of the first–so far, only–school converted to a charter school under the trigger law. The school apparently achieved gains in reading and science. But all may not be well, if this left-leading publication is correct.
The ‘parent trigger’ movement is not exactly grass roots, with strong support from the right-leaning organizations. Does that make it a not-quite-genuine ‘voice’ of parents? At the least, it’s highly debatable.
But there are other parents who support or lead opt-out efforts, sometimes with their children in tow, sometimes arm-in-arm. These parents are being heard from in several Florida communities, Pittsburgh, and a host of other cities and towns.↵
- 8. Do teachers have a ‘voice’ beyond that of their unions? I believe they do, and, as evidence, I cite the growing number of teacher-led schools, Barnett Berry’s Teacher Leader Network, school-community organizations like the Coalition of Community Schools, and social media networks like the Coalition of Essential Schools, where teachers share insights and support each other.↵