They aren't going to take it anymore

February 19, 2005

Jenny LaCoste-Caputo
Express-News Staff Writer

Mia Kang stared at the test sheet on her desk.

It only was practice. Teachers call it a "field test" to give them an idea of how students will perform on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

But instead of filling in the bubbles and making her teacher happy, Mia, a freshman at MacArthur High School, used her answer sheet to write an essay that challenged standardized testing and using test scores to judge children and rank schools.

"I wrote about how standardized tests are hurting and not helping schools and kids," said Mia, who looks and acts older than her 14 years. "I just couldn't participate in something that I'm completely opposed to."

Mia isn't boycotting just the practice tests. The straight-A student said she'll refuse to take the state- and federally-mandated tests Texas teachers begin administrating next week.

The decision isn't a popular one. When Mia refused to take the practice test, two school guidance counselors came to the classroom to try to change her mind.

"They warned me that it would be a black mark on my record and that I should choose my battles wisely," Mia said.

Mia is the latest in a growing number of students nationwide who are showing their opposition to high-stakes testing by putting down their pencils.

These young people say the "drill and kill" mentality of test preparation is destroying their thirst for knowledge and creating a generation of students who are missing crucial lessons in critical thinking, creativity and discovery.

Frustration also grips teachers, but at least in Texas, it's students who are making their voices heard.

A fifth-grader in Edinburgh also is refusing to take the test this year. And two years ago, Kimberly Marciniak, then a freshman at the North East School of Arts at Lee High School, received national attention for her decision to boycott. Students in Massachusetts and New York also have participated in organized boycotts.

Kimberly, now 17 and studying in New Zealand, said she has no regrets.

"I am definitely not an attention seeker and I was kind of unprepared for the attention it received," Kimberly said. "It really was a bit overwhelming, but I accomplished my goal of creating awareness and attention."

Texas has been gauging student progress with high-stakes standardized tests for the past decade. The state's accountability program, which ranks schools based on student progress, became the blueprint for President Bush's sweeping education reform law, labeled No Child Left Behind.

Under the federal mandate, schools must show progress in the overall student population, as well as in subgroups based on race, ethnicity, disability and economic status. The stakes are high, with some schools standing to lose students, money and autonomy if they fail to meet federal standards because too few students pass the tests.

There is risk for individual students, too. In Texas, third- and fifth-graders must pass the test to be promoted to the next grade, and high school students must pass all four sections of the test English, math, social studies and science to earn a diploma, regardless of what their report card says.

Kimberly said she won't take the test when she returns to the state next year even though it could cost her a diploma. She said wagering a child's future on the outcome of one test is unconscionable.

"Each year our country wastes billions of dollars producing and distributing these tests when we could spend that time and money finally giving teachers a salary they deserve or helping schools build classrooms and libraries," she said. "We have third-graders in our state that are being called failures. You call any child a failure and they are bound to feel like a failure."

Macario Guajardo, a fifth-grader at Robert E. Lee Elementary in Edinburgh, said the test puts too much pressure on youngsters. For the first time this year, fifth-graders in Texas must pass the reading and math portions of the test or be held back a grade, with very few exceptions.

"I'm doing this for myself, and all kids too, so they won't have to be going through pressure from the TAKS," Macario said.

Macario's father, Frank Guajardo, encouraged his son to boycott the test.

"Mac was physically sick for a long time," he said of his son's test anxiety.

Guajardo, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Pan American in the department of education leadership, said one test should not determine whether a child can move ahead in school.

"Personally, I don't think we need to get rid of the tests, but it would be very useful to me if we were to follow something like the Rhode Island or Maine state law," he said. "In Rhode Island, they don't allow the test to count more than 10 percent of the criteria of how a child should be passed to the next grade."

Richard Middleton, superintendent for North East School District, which is home to both Mia and Kimberly's schools, said he's not surprised by the backlash against testing, but he hopes students weigh the consequences carefully.

"In both cases, it's not a matter of whether these students could pass or not. They're very, very capable students," Middleton said. "I just hope they don't restrict opportunities in the future by doing this."

But even Middleton understands the frustration.

"There is a real punitive flavor to all of this," he said. "If you're testing to be diagnostic, to identify weaknesses and work on them, that's one thing. But all we hear about is dropping the hammer on schools."

Test preparation dominates classes, Mia says, squeezing out time for meaningful discussion or creative projects.

"These tests don't measure what kids really need to know, they measure what's easy to measure," she said. "We should be learning concepts and skills, not just memorizing. It's sad for kids and it's sad for teachers too.

Mia's mother, Jennifer Radlet, said she supports her daughter.

"She has educated us on the whole issue for years now. I admire her for following through with this," Radlet said.

Radlet, in the midst of a career switch after being a stay-at-home mom for the past several years, is earning her teaching certification. She hopes she can be the kind of teacher who engages students, but she's not sure she can in the test-frenzy environment that dominates America's public schools.

"Children learn when they are allowed to discover things and grasp concepts," she said. "Teachers today have to motivate kids to learn and pass standardized tests at the same time. I don't know if that's possible."

The stakes are likely to get higher for Texas schools. House leaders are proposing sweeping changes to the state's accountability plan. The plan includes allowing the state to close or take over schools with consistently low test scores.

Alfie Kohn, a Boston-based education commentator and author of "The Case Against Standardized Testing," said the accountability movement that has permeated every corner of the nation is riddled with flaws. Chief among them, according to Kohn, are culturally biased tests that are a better measure of a child's wealth than his or her academic potential.

"Standardized tests are exquisite standards of measure of the size of the houses near your school. They're purporting to tell you about school quality and it really tells you about affluence," he said. "Tell me how many kids you have on free and reduced lunch, if their families have a car and if they do, what kind, and I will predict their test scores with frightening accuracy."

A MacArthur High teacher said Mia is showing courage by standing up for what she believes.

"We are constantly being told that character education is an important component of teaching a child," said the teacher, who asked not to be identified. "Clearly this child has learned her values. She's developing her character a strong, honest character and she's following through with it.

"Mia threatens people because Mia actually is evaluating what she believes in and is applying an intelligent response to an irrational situation."

Mia doesn't plan to take the TAKS test ever. Like Kimberly, she doesn't intend to participate even though it means her diploma is on the line. Both girls have stellar academic records and hope colleges see beyond one test.

"If my high school diploma means I passed one test in the 11th grade, then that's pretty meaningless," Mia said.

Staff Writer Macarena Hernandez contributed to this repor