This past spring, when students across Oregon sat down for standardized tests, Noah Noteboom, then a junior at Hood River Valley High School, sat out. He'd already met Oregon's requirements to graduate, and he didn't see the point of yet another assessment.

He wasn't alone. In the 2014-15 school year, 70 percent of his school's junior class got their parents' permission to skip state tests in math and English, putting Hood River Valley High on the map for having the highest opt-out rate in Oregon.

"Once one person opted out, then everyone learned what it was about, and they opted out too," Noteboom, 17, says. "They knew they were doing the right thing."

Superintendent Dan Goldman of the Hood River County School District isn't so sure. He says the test Oregon picked is imperfect and "obscenely long"—three times as long as the SAT—but offers a good gauge of whether students are college-ready.

"I think we have a false sense of the skill set our students have," he says. "Without the tests, I think we're missing a big piece of information."

But Hood River students' activism is poised to spread thanks to legislation passed this spring making it easier for families to opt their kids out of standardized tests, including Oregon's new Smarter Balanced Assessment of students' math and English skills.

Gov. Kate Brown, who's also Oregon's superintendent of public instruction, signed the bill in June at the urging of the Oregon Education Association, which called the state's new assessments "harmful" to kids.

Brown's move pleased a longtime political ally, but she made it harder for state and local education officials to do their jobs, which include making sure students take the tests so Oregon doesn't risk losing federal education funding and local school districts don't see their ratings fall.

After signing House Bill 2655, Brown confused some observers by urging parents not to use their new ability to opt kids out of tests. Brown's stance frustrates several local school superintendents, including Goldman, who say the governor is sending mixed messages about the importance of standardized tests.

"Hypocritical" is how Goldman sums up the U-turn.

Now the Oregon Department of Education, which Brown directs, is asking superintendents who saw their participation rates plummet last spring (even before Brown signed the bill) how they'll get their test-participation rates to rise again.

Correspondence that WW obtained under Oregon's public records law shows the irritation Brown has provoked. In emails, school superintendents say Brown is expecting schools to force students to take tests at the same time she is effectively opening the classroom doors and sounding the recess bell.

Rep. Mark Johnson (R-Hood River) is a member of Oregon's House who also serves as a school board member—in Hood River County. He voted against the opt-out bill, and says Brown's double talk on testing is a symptom of Oregon's dismal track record on improving schools.

"She could have vetoed the bill," he says. "She could have sent it back. She could have done a lot of things differently."

But given OEA's influence in Salem, Johnson says, "It's hard for her to say no."

The bill

Oregon's opt-out bill grew out of national efforts to undermine U.S. public education's march toward more consistent state-to-state standards and more rigorous testing.

In states such as New York, Washington and California, teachers' unions have decried the tests as time wasters that don't produce meaningful measures of individual students' progress. They also say schools reduce art and music in their focus on teaching to tests.

In Portland, opposition to the standards, known as Common Core, and the Smarter Balanced Assessments springs from activist, anti-corporate camps that link the standards and the tests to big business and efforts to tie teachers' pay to students' results.

"It doesn't take a test to tell you how well your student is doing," says Gwen Sullivan, president of the Portland Association of Teachers. "To a lot of people, it's a waste of time and money."

In rural Days Creek, located in Douglas County, opposition grows out of anti-government sentiment. "Like Kim Davis taking a position against issuing marriage licenses to gay couples and choosing jail over compliance," wrote the superintendent of Days Creek in correspondence with the state, "there are a handful of families in my district who are not going to allow their children to test no matter how much we talk about the positive benefits."

Before 2015, Oregon parents could opt their children out of standardized tests for only two reasons: religious objections or a child's disability. In 2013-14, Oregon counted only 250 students out of 567,000 who opted out of statewide testing.

Last year, that number had grown 18-fold to 4,500. In Portland alone, that number was 2,233. Nine percent of eligible students sat out the tests, which are administered in the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and 11th grades.

Rep. Lew Frederick (D-Portland) is a former Portland Public Schools spokesman and teacher at Metropolitan Learning Center, an alternative PPS school that eschews grades. He championed HB 2655, the OEA's top legislative priority in 2015, arguing that parents should be given the information they need to direct their own kids' education. He says critics of the bill are jumping to conclusions. "There's this incredible fear that if you give parents information, they won't go along with the program," he says.

But the bill did include risks, and some schools have felt the consequences of low participation rates. Not only must schools achieve an overall participation rate of 94.5 percent to meet federal guidelines, they need to hit that target among several subgroups of students as well.

Some schools, including Vernon K-8 School in Northeast Portland, have dropped in state rankings because too few white students took the tests. That could imperil federal funding and cause teacher layoffs.

The extent of federal unhappiness over opting out is unclear.

State Rep. Betty Komp (D-Woodburn), a former principal who now serves as co-chairwoman on the Legislature's joint subcommittee on education funding, says defiance is a bad idea in a state that struggles to fund its schools. "The federal government holds a pretty big fist over us," she says, "and no one at the federal level could give us answers. I felt we needed to be cautious."

Criticism from superintendents

Several Oregon superintendents say they're caught in the middle.

On Sept. 4, Brown's pick to lead the Oregon Department of Education sent emails to superintendents of the 23 districts where too few students took last spring's Smarter Balanced tests.

"What do you perceive as the primary cause(s) for lower participation rates on Smarter Balanced tests in your district?" wrote Salam Noor, who took over as the state's top education official in July.

The most pointed response came from Goldman, the Hood River superintendent.

"[Brown] signed a bill she knew was bad for kids," Goldman wrote in a Sept. 8 email to Noor. "As the superintendent of the Hood River County Schools, I would NEVER enact a program or a procedure that I knew would lower standards, put students of color and from disadvantaged groups in a position to be forgotten, lessen my ability to use data to inform program decisions or put us at risk for losing millions of dollars aimed at supporting our most marginalized kids. I am ashamed of our state leadership."

Goldman wasn't alone.

"Stop sending mixed messages to the community," Marla Stephenson, superintendent of the Estacada School District, told Noor in September.

"We are all for parent choice," wrote Canby's superintendent, Trip Goodall, on Sept. 18, "but it is problematic to say the least when we are held to a participation rate while state law allows unconditional opting out of the assessment. How do we message the importance of the assessment while simultaneously sending home a letter detailing HB 2655?"

Close ties to OEA

If Brown is walking a tightrope in her response to the opt-out movement, the statewide teachers' union and Department of Education are holding the two ends.

Brown has had a close relationship with OEA since first entering the Oregon House in 1991. The teachers helped Brown build a majority in the Senate after she won election there, and the OEA gave big to Brown when she ran in 2008 and 2012 for secretary of state, even though that position holds no authority over Oregon schools.

(Caleb Misclevitz)
(Caleb Misclevitz)

After Brown unexpectedly became governor in February, she appointed Lindsey Capps, a former OEA leader, as her chief education adviser. Last week, Brown's administration tapped the union's lobbyist, BethAnne Darby, for a top position at the Oregon Health Authority.

OEA leaders defend Brown's balancing act.

"I think it illustrates the governor's understanding of how complex the situation is," says Colleen Mileham, who has Capps' old job with the OEA.

Laila Hirschfeld, an OEA spokeswoman, says it's not the governor's relationship with the union guiding her decisions, it's her policy ideas: "Kate Brown is a friend of public education."

Yet Brown's own education department has taken steps to reduce the impact of the bill she signed. This week, the Oregon Board of Education, which sets statewide policy for schools, will consider a resolution to limit the bill's scope so it applies just to Smarter Balanced Assessments, not other statewide tests such as the kindergarten assessment.

Sullivan, president of the Portland teachers' union, says it's not surprising the governor is sending mixed messages: "She was brought into this pretty quickly and maybe she's still trying to navigate it."

Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend) sponsored HB 2655 in the Senate. He says he intended the bill to apply to all assessments and wouldn't hesitate to bring a new measure to the Legislature to undo whatever the education board enacts.

The Republican lawmaker offered a cautious assessment of Brown's performance so far.

"I don't know if she's trying to have it both ways," he says. "It may look that way."

Melissa Navas, a spokeswoman for Brown, says there's no contradiction. "She wants families to have a choice," Navas says, "and after receiving appropriate information and context make an informed choice to opt in."

This story appears in the Oct. 21 print edition as "Cheating on Tests."