Angry that state-mandated standardized tests may result in an F grade at one of Harrison School District 2's two high schools, a group of Sierra High students defied their principal's threats of disciplinary action and this week launched a three-week protest to condemn the CSAPs.
Now their principal, Bryan Wright, claims he is behind his students all the way.
Dozens of students gathered on Tuesday, the first day the test was being given to sophomores at the school. For two hours the crowd, which grew at one point to more than 100, waved signs at passing motorists that read: "Your education can't be judged by a test," "Give us our education back," and "Students have nothing to lose but their chains."
No sense at all
The senior organizers decided to protest -- which they plan to continue each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning for the next three weeks -- after they took a sample 10th grade CSAP test in their advanced AP English class. None of them did well, and a few of them failed the test.
"We did really, really bad, and that implies it's a flawed test if the top 15 English kids at the school can't even pass it," said senior Josh Bassett.
Protesters initially planned to implore sophomores not to take the state tests, but at the urging of their teachers, decided against supporting an all-out boycott. Students who refuse to take the CSAP will log a zero, which will be factored in with the school's overall score.
"The students who [refuse to take the test] lose a chance of earning a credit in math and language arts and get a lower score for our school," said Steve Tornas, an English teacher at the school. "And that's not a good thing."
As mandated by Colorado Gov. Bill Owens' education reform bill last year, low-scoring schools will lose funding, or, in the case of the lowest-achieving schools, will be forced to shut their doors and reopen as charters.
However, students and educators have said the tests are extremely difficult and grammatically incorrect. In addition, schools like Sierra High have another challenge. Many of the students at the school come from challenging backgrounds, where their parents are split up, they have moved around often and the kids may be working at least one job to help support their families.
Bassett accused the governor of unfairly blaming teachers for social conditions that are out of their control.
"We wrote editorials in our newspaper about the unfairness of the CSAPs, our English teacher wrote a letter to the governor, and we knew nothing would come of it," he said. "This is kind of our way of making the governor listen to what we are saying for next three weeks."
It's the law
The students aren't the only ones protesting the CSAPs. Last week in Greeley, a teacher was suspended for refusing to administer the test to his students.
Locally, Jonathan Reilly, who teaches in the more affluent Cheyenne Mountain District 12, exempted his daughter from taking the tests. In a Feb. 9 letter to the principal at his daughter's school, Reilly said he believes that "the current CSAP assessment model has the political agenda to destroy public schools, especially those overburdened with the most difficult problems in our society."
In addition, Reilly protested that the CSAPs create a negative incentive for elementary schools to concentrate on specific areas that the students will be tested in, that schools are spending too much time preparing and giving the test, and that the tests themselves are flawed.
Deborah Fallin, spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association, said her organization is not tracking the number of teachers, students and parents who have refused to give or take the test. Significant student protests have broken out in Massachusetts, where state-mandated tests there determine whether a student can graduate. But here in Colorado, "as far as we know there have been no major uprisings," Fallin said.
The CEA, which represents teachers across Colorado, does not believe that the standardized tests -- or any singular testing measure -- are an accurate way of assessing how well students are learning. However, Fallin said a mass refusal to take the tests is inappropriate.
"We are not going to advocate that our teachers disobey directives that they get from the school district -- it is the law," she said.
Expecting the worst
After the first day of their protest, Brandon Thomas said he and other organizers were called into Principal Wright's office, where they expected they would be disciplined, suspended or worse. Instead, the young men were praised for their action.
"It seems the principal is taking the role of a politician," Thomas said. Last week, when Thomas and Bassett posted flyers around the school announcing the protest, the students said Wright called them into his office.
"He stressed he didn't want us involved, and that it was a request that would become a demand," said Thomas, who is the student body president at Sierra High School. "He said that he liked us before, but we were going to have an adverse relationship if we persisted.
"That sounded like some sort of a threat to me and my welfare, and there was definitely a mood that we were being threatened with possible suspension or expulsion."
But after the protest, which was covered by a local television station, the principal was all smiles and praise, Thomas said.
"He even called us men of honor, after last week when he decided he didn't like us. It's pretty hypocritical -- it seems the media got to him.
"I'm glad he changed his mind, but it does have something [to say] about his character."
After the protest, Wright called his change in heart a "misinterpretation."
"The only thing I said to them is there would be repercussions," the principal said. "I didn't say I would withhold their degree or suspend them."
Wright said he was unaware of any sophomores who refused to take the CSAP test, though several had joined the ranks of the protesters. He estimated the turnout for the first day of the test was high, around 90 percent.
The principal insisted that while he may disagree with the point that students were trying to make, he has no complaints about their protest. "Heck, students have a First Amendment right as long as it's a peaceful demonstration," he said.