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Testing Their Patience

A group of students is dragging down ratings of a school in a historically black neighborhood. They're white.

Kim Wilson considers herself a conscientious objector.

It's not war she is opposing, although she does feel children today are under attack. She objects to standardized tests.

Last year, Wilson, a Portland math teacher, opted her oldest son out of Oregon's third-grade math and reading tests. She says the tests needlessly stress young children, inaccurately measure intellectual growth and punish schools that don't meet arbitrary cutoffs, she says. 

"I refuse to contribute to a system like that," says Wilson, whose sons attend Vernon K-8 School, across the street from Alberta Park on Northeast Killingsworth Street.

Wilson made an increasingly popular decision. Last year, 250 out of 567,000 Oregon kids skipped state-mandated tests, according to the state Department of Education.  That's up from 161 the year before. At Vernon, 18 students opted out compared to five the previous year. 

The insurrection so far may be small, but it's having stark consequences.

This year's Department of Education report cards for schools knocked Vernon down to the lowest rating, putting the school at risk for interventions by state and U.S. authorities, restrictions on federal funding and massive staff layoffs.

The reason? The state sets minimum target levels for participation in standardized math and reading tests, and too many white students opted out.

Vernon would have ranked two slots higher on the state's scale of five if education officials had looked solely at test scores.

Parents fear the ranking is going to hurt Vernon, which struggles to attract neighborhood students in the heart of gentrifying Northeast Portland. Vernon's student body is poorer than the typical Portland primary school's, and it's more diverse. Half the students are black or Latino, compared to 28 percent in PPS elementary schools overall.

Brad Larrabee, a white parent at Vernon, doesn't blame the families who opted out; he plans to exempt his own child this year. But he thinks the system is ludicrous. "The well-meaning actions of reasonably well-to-do white parents are now being allowed to exacerbate the situation for lower-income African-American students,” he says. 

Oregon requires standardized tests for students in grades three through 12 to measure how schools are performing and to hold teachers accountable for results. The state introduced a kindergarten test last year to gauge students' readiness for school as part of Gov. John Kitzhaber's push to enroll more students in higher education.

State law allows parents to keep their kids out of the tests for two reasons: If a child's disability prevents him from taking the tests, or if the tests go against a family's religious beliefs. So far, Portland Public Schools hasn't challenged parents like Wilson who claim the religious exemption. Wilson and others say they're not fudging, because the tests go against their values. "High-stakes standardized testing does not fit our set of beliefs," Wilson says.

The state dings schools on their annual report cards when their testing participation rates drop below 94.5 percent overall or in any of seven subcategories. The rule is designed to prevent schools from boosting their results by keeping lower-performing students from taking the tests.

This year's drop worries Chabre Vickers, a Vernon mom whose daughter is African-American and Native American. She agrees that the testing system is flawed, but believes opting out is not going to solve the problem at Vernon. She also worries Vernon's ratings dip could overshadow progress made at the school. "These are great parents, great people," Vickers says. "They have great fervor. I'm just unsure of their methods."

PPS administrators discourage parents from opting out of testing. Principals distribute opt-out forms only to families that request them. Nor may principals approve exemptions without first telling parents about the potential consequences for the school.

Vernon Principal Tina Acker was unavailable for comment. "She understands parents have the right [to opt out]," PPS spokeswoman Christine Miles says of Acker. "But it hurts the school, not because of performance but because of the lack of participation."

Vernon isn't the only school with significant numbers of students opting out. Beach K-8 School in North Portland, Chapman Elementary School and Metropolitan Learning Center in Northwest Portland, and Sunnyside Environmental School and Glencoe Elementary School in Southeast Portland all saw higher opt-out numbers last year. The state also hit Chapman and Sunnyside for low test participation, but none fell as low as Vernon. 

There's a national movement to drive up the numbers as vocal parents—on the left and right—object to the so-called Common Core State Standards. 

Groups such as Save Our Schools, Change the Stakes, and the Badass Teachers Association are pushing at the national level to ditch standardized tests. 

Parents are hosting opt-out parties, launching Facebook pages to share information and turning to Twitter with testimonials using the hashtag #whyIrefuse.

The move toward opting out seems to be gaining strength in Portland, even though parents know it has already hurt the ratings for schools such as Vernon.

Parents who favor opting out don't put much stock in the ratings. "The scores are invalid," says Lauren Andronici, a Vernon mom. "In fact, our school is thriving. We're on the upswing."

Wilson agrees and doesn't second-guess her decision.

"I don't care what the [state] report card says," Wilson says. "I feel I have a responsibility to speak up."