About 50 percent of the junior classes at both of Palo Alto's public high schools decided to opt out of the new Smarter Balanced Assessments this week, concerned about the two days of standardized testing scheduled the week before Advanced Placement and SAT exams.
Gunn High School junior Hayley Krolik said she first heard about the opt-out option from a classmate who posted an article on the junior class' Facebook page: "More California parents exercise right to skip standardized test."
Movements to opt out of the new Common Core State Standards testing, which for the first time this year will return results to school districts and students, have popped up across the country for various reasons, from protesting an emphasis on standardized testing to the new, more rigorous standards themselves, which some critics view as a top-down approach to education.
But in Palo Alto, it was about stress -- unrelated to the exam itself -- and timing. AP testing begins at Gunn and Palo Alto High on Monday, May 4, for juniors and seniors. Some students are also taking SAT tests this weekend.
Students who wanted to opt out of the Smarter Balanced test, which took place this past Monday and Tuesday, were required to get a parent's signature.
"Everyone is really stressed out with AP testing coming up," said Krolik, who opted out of Smarter Balanced. "They were excited to have the two days off but also didn't really feel test was important, so if there was a way to get out of it ... they were thinking about it."
"It's a bad perfect storm for student stress," Chris Kolar, director of research and assessment for the school district, said of the test's timing for students.
Paly students similarly heard from their peers online about the option to not take the test. Some students were under the impression that, like last year's Smarter Balanced testing, this was a trial run and the results "didn't count." Juniors last year participated in a statewide pilot of the new test; this year, however, will yield full results that are meant to serve as schools' benchmark data for years to come.
District officials said it is unclear what implications the lack of participation will have for the district in terms of data collection and funding.
Lynn Drake, who as a Common Core supporter was adamant that her son, a junior at Gunn, take the Smarter Balanced test this week, said she felt like there wasn't enough communication from the school about the significance of the new test.
"The general mood is that this test doesn't really matter," Drake said. "There seems to be a misunderstanding or a lack of understanding about what this means."
As students were talking about it online, parents were too, with debate over the pros and cons of opting out taking place over the Gunn juniors' parents' email network, Drake said.
Students who did take the test, however, weren't as concerned about its proximity to other exams. Paly junior Martin Manasherob said he didn't have to study for Smarter Balanced and felt less pressure about it because the results don't have a direct impact on his grades or factor into college admissions, unlike the AP or SAT.
But Manasherob said the first day of testing felt like a waste of time, with too much time allotted for certain sections of the test. Paly students were released early both days.
"Taking roll and just starting the test took around 40 minutes, and there were two people absent for every one that showed up," he said. "At this point, if you had opted out, you were the smart one."
He said that the first section, on English-language arts, ranged from four to six questions for each student and took about 15 to 20 minutes for most to finish, though it was scheduled to take two hours. Some classes were given a one-hour break before returning for the second section on mathematics, which Manasherob said took substantially longer. Some students in his class spent almost the full two hours to complete that portion of the test. One class at Paly accidentally switched the two sections, so they didn't wait through the hour-long break, one student said.
The second day of testing on Tuesday went more smoothly, Manasherob said, with different proctors and a shorter 15-minute break that allowed students to leave for the day at noon instead of 12:30 p.m.
Smarter Balanced is an adaptive test taken on computers, meaning that the number of questions and their difficulty adjusts to the student as he or she moves through the test. Kolar said the allotment of time for each section is determined by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a coalition of states that adopted the Common Core standards several years ago, but the district will take feedback like that into consideration as it refines its own testing protocols and scheduling for future years.
Participation is key, however. California schools are expected to meet a 95 percent threshold on participation, according to Janine Penney, manager of research, evaluation and assessment for the Palo Alto school district. The state won't be using test results but rather participation rates to hold schools accountable, Penney said.
"I'm not sure what the implications are at this point if the participation rates are low at the high school," she said.
Kolar said the district is hitting its participation rates at the elementary and middle school levels. Palo Alto third- through eighth-graders also started taking the test two weeks ago.
The district has not yet seen what the Smarter Balanced results will look like -- though it's likely that they will be a complete departure from the previous test's categories of "advanced," "proficient," "basic" and "far below/below basic."
"I think it remains to be seen," Penney said. "We have to see what we get back in order to make that determination."
The district is also in the process of following up with the California Department of Education for guidance on how the participation rates could affect funding the high schools receive from the state, Kolar said.
Paly's and Gunn's principals and the director of secondary education are also meeting next week to look at scheduling for next year's Smarter Balanced testing and will consider the scheduling of AP and SAT exams.
"High school is in a different context," Kolar said. "I think that we'll be taking more of those contextual factors into account with the scheduling and making sure that the experience of students that they feel comfortable participating in it next time around."