Meet a Colorado student who pushed state legislators to rethink testing

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By Amanda Litvinov

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Some students’ legacies are on display in the school trophy case or in the pages of the yearbooks archived in the library.

Others leave a different legacy—one that isn’t necessarily recognized with a medal or a ceremony, but is felt by those who come after they’ve gone. These are the kids who speak up and organize to bring change and improve learning conditions for future generations of students.

This series will profile students across the country who have organized sit-ins and walk-outs, social media campaigns and good old-fashioned rallies to stand up to elected leaders, corporate reformers, censorship, the overuse of standardized tests, and substandard facilities.

Sydney Chinowsky is one of those students.

As a senior at Boulder, Colorado’s Fairview High School last year, Chinowsky was looking forward to focusing on college admissions and her IB history exam. First semester was a busy time—but at least she and her fellow seniors wouldn’t be required to take any more state standardized tests.

So they thought.

But then, “…it was like, nope, we are going to give you this unnecessary test,” said Chinowsky recalling the sudden announcement in November that seniors would take the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) after all.

Hear Sydney Chinowsky speak at the More Than a Score rally in Denver.

“We eventually figured out that it had been planned for quite a while,” she said. They actually paid the testing company Pearson to come up with this test specifically for seniors, and they had to plan how to administer it to 650 of us.”

Chinowsky and her family aren’t against all standardized testing. But they are against it when the results don’t provide a picture of student progress and are used as the basis of judging a teacher’s worth.

The practice questions they saw were “convoluted and weird,” said Chinowsky, and included subject areas such as economics that aren’t offered by all Colorado high schools. It angered students to learn that their state paid testing companies millions of dollars they could invest in technology, textbooks, and restoring arts classes.

Inspired by recent student protests in nearby Jefferson County over the school board’s censorship of the curriculum, the Fairview seniors realized they, too, could take a very public stand over what they saw as “the degradation of our education.”

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Sydney Chinowsky (second from right) and classmates staged a two-day protest in freezing temperatures.

Over the two days in December that the standardized test was to be administered, more than 350 seniors bundled up and protested outside of the school in 5-degree weather and two feet of snow. Fewer than 10 students took the exam.

Although teachers were contractually required to administer the tests, they also tromped outdoors to check on the protesting students and bring donuts and coffee.

“They were very supportive of us,” Chinowsky recalled.

The student organizers wanted to make it clear they weren’t lazy seniors looking to cut class—they wanted to show that all that testing time could be used more productively.

First, they set up computers so that everyone present could email their lawmakers about the problem with testing. They also hosted food and school supply drives, collecting two vanfuls for local organizations that help struggling families.

Fairview’s protest was the biggest, but students in other districts also opted out and protested.

Last March, during her spring break, Sydney was invited by the Colorado Education Association to speak at the More Than a Score rally outside of the state capitol.

Standing on the capitol steps, social studies teacher and Colorado Education Association President Kerrie Dallman introduced Sydney, saying, “I am convinced that all of the testing bills they’re discussing behind me in this building were influenced by the actions of these remarkable students from Boulder.”

It was cold and drizzling, but “it was such a great experience to meet all of these students and teachers who are passionate about how this kind of testing is hurting our education,” said Chinowsky.

The combined efforts of students like Sydney Chinowsky, parents and educators speaking out against the state’s testing regime were effective: The state ditched the CMAS test for the current school year, and testing has been a major issue in state legislature ever since.

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