From left: Students Erik Bensen, Josie Lee, and Greg Gassen of Arapahoe High School talk about tests and testing culture.

(Jenny Brundin/CPR News)

As Colorado lawmakers debated school testing this spring, they heard from parents, teachers and other stakeholders. But a group often missing from the discussion was perhaps the most important: students.

Those students, it turns out, have a lot to say when it comes to tests and the testing culture that has become so predominant in their schools.

Sophomores Erik Bensen and Josie Lee and junior Greg Gassen attend Arapahoe High School in Littleton and are among the hundreds of thousands of Colorado students now taking the second round of new state standardized test called PARCC.

At the end of a busy school week, hair still wet from swim practice, they took a rare pause in their busy schedules to share their opinions.

All three say they are over-tested.

Gassen reels off a long list of upcoming tests: three days of practice Advanced Placement chemistry tests, the ACT, then the AP chemistry test, then PARCC tests, then class finals. Bensen adds that he has several large projects due during this time.

“It’s a waste of teaching time,” Bensen said. “I could be learning so much more but instead I’m taking tests.”

Relief will come for Colorado juniors and seniors next year. State lawmakers on Wednesday scrapped the state tests for 11th and 12th grades. But there are many other district-wide tests students take, and for students in grades three through eight, testing will remain much as it has because of federal requirements.

Fewer teaching moments, students say

All three students say something is fundamentally wrong with a system that relies so heavily on tests to evaluate them.

First, they say there are fewer of those golden moments, when unscripted, spontaneous learning happens. Josie Lee describes her honors math class, where her teacher likes to go beyond the regular curriculum.

“He’ll elaborate on the subject and take us into this deeper math level than we’re actually at but then he’ll have to cut it short because we need to learn something that’s going to be on the test or we need to learn something in a new standard, instead of taking the time to let us go off into this realm of math that we didn’t really know existed until now,” she said. “It’s a little upsetting because we get really excited about math. We love learning and then when he cuts it short, it’s just a little upsetting.”

Second, for Lee, taking tests is unpleasant.

“I get really nervous before I take a test,” she said. “Sometimes I’ve started shaking before, I’ve been that nervous before I take a test.”

“I could be learning so much more but instead I’m taking tests.”
— Sophomore Erik Bensen

Lee said taking the PARCC test on a computer is stressful. With this test, there’s a big emphasis on showing your work, and kids have struggled with how to do that on a computer. She likes using paper or a text book. One of the essays she wrote for the PARCC English test was a synthesis essay. She began looking for quotes.

“I just started getting really frustrated because I couldn’t highlight it, I couldn’t touch it, I couldn’t see it, because it was only this small box and I had to scroll in order to see it, I wanted to see the whole thing,” she said. “To make it worse, the story I was comparing it to was recorded; someone read it to me.”  

So Lee transcribed sections of the recorded passage by hand on a scrap of paper and picked out the quotes. But students will get some relief. Colorado lawmakers agreed this week to allow schools to let students take PARCC using paper and pencil next year.

Other students are more comfortable with computer-based testing. Greg Gassen didn’t find the content of PARCC any more interesting than the previous TCAP and CSAP state standardized tests but he liked the novelty of videos on some tests.

“I think that was a benefit because kids can connect more with videos than they can sometimes can with the written word and that will capture their interest more,” he said.

The decision to opt out

Erik Bensen, meantime, is opting out of the PARCC tests. Lawmakers this week clarified that students won't face consequences for doing this. Bensen’s parents let him opt out after he wrote a detailed essay to explain his reasons.

“I feel very good about my decision to opt out because I think that testing is not the right way to [evaluate students],” he said. “We’ve got to start looking for other ways and if they just keep throwing these standardized tests at us and everybody keeps accepting them, then we’re never going to have any progress trying to figure out what this other way is that we can measure things.

Lawmakers decided to keep penalties on schools and teachers when students opt out. Bensen said that's not fair. PARCC scores don’t count for a student’s grade. But they do count in a teacher’s evaluation, something these students say is also unfair.  

Bensen remembers what happened during the old standardized TCAP tests.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in TCAP in past where I’ve seen kids close their tests and throw it away, not caring anything and then gone on to do something else or just walk out of the room and leave,” he said.

Lee, too, has observed students who don’t try on the standardized tests, yet teachers will be partially evaluated on student growth scores.

“I know a lot of kids that when they took the test, that in the answer box they would write 'this is pointless, why am I doing this?' ” she said.  

School districts and teachers will still be held accountable for test scores despite efforts to reduce their emphasis this legislative session. That leaves the students wondering 'why?' 

The ACT is a measure of how well you can take the ACT, the PARCC test is a measure of how well you can take the PARCC test," Gassen said. "It’s not a measure of how well you can do in life.”