Protesting the TCAP: Civil Disobedience and Standardized Tests

TCAPStopSignHave you ever witnessed students doing amazing things? If you’ve been in a classroom, I suspect you have, but I doubt that you associate amazing things with those soul-sucking days devoted to giving standardized tests.

I’ve been inflicting our state’s standardized test on my students this week. If you aren’t from Colorado, its helpful to know that our current state-mandated test is called the TCAP, where T is for Transitional. Transitional as in “we don’t really have a good idea about what the next test will look like but we know that the old test, the CSAP, has expired.”  I could go on about how useless it is to give a “transitional” test, knowing that it tests a set of standards and skills that the state disposed of a while ago, but I won’t.

What I’ll share instead is the story of one young lady, whom I had never met before she walked into my classroom the day of the first testing session.

Different schools do testing differently, but at our school we block out (wipe out) four days of instructional time to administer the TCAP to students.  We do three test sessions during the course of a day, with a few breaks thrown in so students can snack and take care of bodily functions before they get back to testing. Throw in some extra testing time just in case students run over the allowed time for testing, lets say a half-hour per test, and now you are asking students to come to school from 7:45 to 1:35, call it 6 hours a day, for 4 days, for a total of 24 hours.

The students are, perhaps sadly, used to this chunk of their lives being thrown away. They file in to my room on the first day of testing with resignation written on their faces. They sit in their proper places with their number two pencils at the ready and wait for test booklets to appear. Appear they do, and, after some standardized directions read by yours truly, they dive into their tests and whatever mysterious tasks await them.

Except one doesn’t. This young lady was right with me during the directions and the slightly useless “sample” problems but now she has closed her test booklet and is sitting quietly staring at its cover. I’m not allowed to “interact with the students in any way” so I don’t say anything, and, as it turns out, neither does she. She just sits there for an hour as the rest of the tested go about their mysterious tasks.

At first I think to myself that perhaps she is not fond of writing. That would explain why she skips the essay part of the reading and writing test. But then she proceeds to do the same exact thing for the math test, then the science test, and so on. She is an equal opportunity non-test-taker, apparently. Hour after hour, day after day goes by with the same pattern repeating itself: I read the directions, she smiles, and then she calmly closes her test book without completing a single test item.

For 24 hours. Twenty-four-hours of sitting quietly while others around her scribble away at mysterious tasks. When was the last time you spent 24 hours in silence? This is a 10th grader we’re talking about. A teenager. The age group where self-control is thrown out the window by hormones and disconnected frontal lobes. To sit quietly while the world goes about its tasks is something a lot of us wanna-be adults struggle to pull off. She must have a pretty good reason for choosing to behave this way.

But why? What drives a student to such outlandish behavior? I wish I knew. Is she sticking it to the man by refusing to test? Was she inspired by the recent Denver student protests and is following their example? Or is she so low ability that she feels that she will fail the test anyway so why even try? Does she hate all of her teachers so much that she wants to nail them with poor test scores so they look bad and get fired? All these reasons are possible and valid.

Why did she come to school at all? There happens to be an interesting bit of state legislation (C.R.S. 22-7-409) that “requires every student enrolled in a public school to take the assessments in the grade level in which the student is enrolled.” Various people (usually school administrators and TCAP testing coordinators) have made it clear that this statement means that state law says that you have to take TCAP. I’m not here to argue the legality of opting out of TCAP, the Coalition for Better Education and the United Opt Out National Movement do a much better job of that, but I am here to say that the message is broadcast to students and parents that refusing to show up for TCAP testing is illegal. I suspect that’s why this student came to school for her 24 hour marathon of non-compliance.

As I watch this student sit (or nap) through these “legally required” tests I wonder, regardless of their motivation, what would happen if more students followed her example?  Could enough passive resistance like this change how we do testing to students? What would happen if all of our students smile, nod, and close their test booklets without completing a single item on our standardized tests?

That would definitely be an interesting 24 hours.

Published by

Chris Ludwig

Chris Ludwig is a science teacher who teaches at La Junta High School and Otero Junior College in La Junta, Colorado, USA.

4 thoughts on “Protesting the TCAP: Civil Disobedience and Standardized Tests”

    1. Harry,
      After the last test was over, I pulled up this post on my iPad and handed it to her to read. Since it was about her I thought that was fair. She read it intently for several minutes then went back to chatting with a neighbor. She smiled a bit as I took the iPad back but that was all the reaction I got. Frustrating and wonderful at the same time. If I get to have more of a conversation with her I’ll pass it on.

  1. Wouldn’t she be held back or questioned for not participating in the state examination? Was the counselor informed?

    1. Here in Colorado the state test means nothing to students. It’s not tied to graduation and isn’t used for grade advancement so this student really isn’t in any danger of being held back for her non-compliance. Some departments like language arts and math might use TCAP scores for course placement (advanced vs regular sections) so there might be a conversation ahead for this student with the counselor about her future coursework.

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