High-Voltage Protest

Across the nation, parent and student protests are growing against the use of "high-stakes" tests. In a number of cases, the protests have arisen spontaneously after students and parents learned of not only the tests' content, but also of the use of a single standardized score to decide promotion or graduation. Some protests involve a handful of parents or students and others are organized districtwide or statewide.

By Linda McCants Pendleton

While there are cautions — for example, boycotting a test might get a student suspended — the protests show how deeply some students and parents feel about the issue. Overall, the actions point to a healthy spirit of protest among students who see their education being compromised by the growing obsession with standardized tests.

The student protests have been particularly courageous and newsworthy because of the potential repercussions in some districts. Examples include:

  • Massachusetts. Some 50 students at Danvers High School signed a petition to not take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test, arguing that it led to a watered-down curriculum and emphasis on test-taking. Seven of the students were suspended. Eugene Sommerfeld, the father of one of the boycotting students, said he supports his son’s decision and is thinking of contacting the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s the American way,” Eugene Sommerfeld said. “Protest is acceptable and admirable and healthy.”
  • In Newton, MA, 16-year-old Eva Shteir also refused to take the test, calling it an act of civil disobedience. “I can’t believe that I face suspension because I don’t want to be a guinea pig in this little experiment,” she told the Associated Press. “It’s not relevant and it’s so disruptive to the curriculum.” One administrator said Shteir would not be suspended, but would get a failing grade.
  • California. Some 40 students at Drake High School in Marin County walked out on the state-mandated standardized test, known as STAR, and distributed leaflets saying: “Protest government racism and standardized testing.” The students noted that a significant percentage of students in California speak Spanish, yet STAR is only offered in English. The students also wrote their high school district’s board, the California Board of Education, and the governor. The Drake students had kept the principal informed of their actions, and no disciplinary action was taken against them. The protests have reportedly spread to other districts as well.
  • Illinois. Ten students at Whitney Young high school in Chicago, the city’s “best” high school based on standardized test scores, deliberately failed the Illinois Goals Assessment Program exams this February. The protests have spread to other area high schools and have created a great deal of media publicity, including a story on National Public Radio (see related story).

    The Whitney Young students wrote a letter to the principal explaining their protest. “We refuse to feed this test-taking frenzy,” the students wrote. “We ask that the time and energy spent on standardized tests be reduced to the minimum possible. … The school and the school system should show its academic superiority through the quality of its education and the accomplishments of its students rather than the numbers on its test scores.”

    Whitney Young principal Joyce Kenner called the students into her office and “basically yelled at us a little” but took no further action, according to one of the students, Will Tanzman. Chicago district CEO Paul Vallas then ordered the students “punished,” and the principal assigned them to 10 hours of community service each, according to the Chicago education newspaper Substance.

  • Michigan. For several years, parents and education activists have organized a boycott of the state-mandated “high-stakes” tests. In Michigan, parents have the legal right to “opt-out” their children from the test, according to Rich Gibson of Wayne State University. The “opting out” has been particularly strong in affluent districts, where a poor result might affect a student’s chance of getting into college, and in low-income districts, where students disproportionately fare the worst. In some districts, the opt-out rate was as high as 95%, according to Gibson. The Detroit Free Press reported last year that, statewide, 22.5% of 11th graders did not take the test.

Examples of parent and community protests include:

  • Illinois. In Chicago, a coalition of parent and community groups has launched an educational campaign against the district’s “high-stakes” use of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Groups in the campaign include Parents United for Responsible Education and the Local School Councils Summit.
  • Virginia. Roxanne Grossman from Richmond has joined forces with Mickey Vanderwerker to educate other parents about the state’s “high-stakes” tests. Vanderwerker’s group is called Parents Across VA United to Reform SOL (Standards Of Learning Exams).
  • New York. The New York City Board of Education this February canceled a districtwide reading test for second graders “after a barrage of objections from parents and principals who complained that children were already being tested too much,” according to a March 13 article in The New York Times. It was the first time a scheduled citywide test had been canceled during Chancellor Rudy Crew’s administration. While the test did not have “high-stakes” consequences, the opposition showed parental dissatisfaction with the over-testing of young children.
  • Ohio. Parent Mary O’Brien has turned her home into ground zero for the grassroots “Stop the Bully” campaign. (The slogan was adapted from a program teaching kids how to protect themselves on the playground.) O’Brien and the handful of other parents working with her are publicizing parents’ rights to “opt-out” their children from the tests.


Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest, says the organization “supports the boycotts. We think they are often legitimate and often a necessary form of action. At the same time, students and parents both need to be aware of potential repercussions.”

In some states, parents may legally “opt out” their children from state tests. Some states do not address the issue. And in some, a zero score may result, potentially leading to a student’s retention and/or pulling down the school’s overall grade. Some principals have taken disciplinary action and suspended boycotting students, but others have not.

Neill notes that ultimately, the task is to organize politically to get district officials and legislators to change the tests. His advice: Get educated about the reasons that decisions about students should not be based on a single test score; find out what’s on the tests; find allies. “It’s all part of organizing a political campaign,” he said.

To connect with parents, educators, and advocates in other parts of the United States, visit the FairTest website at: www.fairtest.org/arn/arn.htm.