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Putting Equity to the Test: Students as Educators

June 18, 2015

Classroom Paul Beverage

The s.t.a.r.t. network has grown beyond the schools to include both s.t.a.r.t. alumni (who incubated the work at South High) and learners of all ages in the community who wish to build their skills as racial allies, activists—and most importantly, educators.  In their process of educating peer students, community members and teachers in the community about their experiences as learners, students in s.t.a.r.t. are imprinting their studies more deeply, while developing their capacity for civic and intercultural leadership.  Most have received significant scholarships in college for their leadership in the community.

S.t.a.r.t.’s efforts this year have centered on student workshops and community events that examine the theme of “putting equity to the test.”  By equity, the students mean practices and policies through which outcomes cannot be determined by race or income and all students are served according to their needs.  Testing equity, then, means that evaluations are prepared and administered in such a way that there will not be a strong correlation between race or zip code and one’s advantage with test taking.

High school and college student leaders examined test bias through presentations at the Social Justice Fair (October, 2014) by Saida Mahamud, Mekhi Taylor and Loren Towle; and at the Overcoming Racism Conference (November, 2014) by Eva Shellabarger, Loren Towle, Nagma Garane and Saida Mahamud.  Workshop participants not only shared their own struggles with testing, but commented on evaluations how they were inspired by the experience and stories of the students.  Comments also included:  “I would love to know how the students are getting their work out there!” and “We need more students like you!” and “Keep doing what you’re doing!”

In February, 2015, South High senior Nagma Garane co-presented a workshop entitled “We Are Not JUST Students and Parents” at St. Mary University’s 2nd Annual Missing Voices Conference.  The workshop included a circle dialogue about the positive role that students and parents can play to foster a healthier climate in our schools.

In April 2015, Nora Lahm, Addie Welch, Loren Towle and Nagma Garane, presented their  workshop, Putting Equity to the Test, for teachers-in-training on the Metropolitan State University course Assessment of Learning in Urban Grades K-6.  (Nora, Addie, Loren and Nagma are featured in the above photograph with their students.) As a result, one student wrote, “Having the high school students come in to talk about the opt out program is what really stuck out for me over the past few weeks. Before this class, I never really thought about the amount of testing students are subjected to in schools these days and whether those tests are really necessary. The high school students brought up some great points about the biases that can exist in standardized tests, and how they are not always fair to all students. I have never heard of students being able to opt out of standardized testing, and I think the idea could be very powerful. This is not to say that I believe there shouldn’t be any standardized testing, but I do think the amount of testing has become too much, and students are becoming discouraged. I liked the point that someone in our class made about thinking about the intention behind the tests and having that be the point that we are looking to change. If the intention behind the test was to help teachers become better informed about student needs so they could help them be more successful I think we would all agree that would make a much more valuable assessment.”

Another wrote:  “The next topic I wanted to comment on was the Opt-Out presentation. I feel that this is a really great movement. I think that there are many things that influence students doing poorly on high-stakes tests such as; culture, content taught in the classroom versus content on exams, the language of the test, test anxiety, students new to the county, the emphasis the school puts on testing and for students to do well, teaching to test and not teaching students in a multi-modal way or a way that fits their needs, and the list goes on and on. I believe this movement is a great way to get states to start thinking about different more valuable ways to hold schools accountable as well as ensuring that students are learning and making progress. After this presentation I has at work in the staff lounge and decided to talk about the ability for student to opt-out, the principal said that students can opt-out but he personal wouldn’t advise it. I said what about ELL students, his reply was that students who are new to this county automatically are exempt from state testing for the first year. I could tell that he was busy and didn’t really want to have this conversation at that moment so I didn’t press him any further. But I was think how can we expect ELL students to take state tests only one year after they have started to learn English. I always feel like when I try to talk about what we are learning in our urban education program to other staff members that there is a wall up, that they do not get it, or that they do not want change, which is really frustrating at times. Even though they are all about multiculturalism, they really so not get it. All the more reason for students to opt-out.”

More recently, Cleveland Miller, a leader in our network, performed his spoken word piece at a HIP OPT OUT Concert at Bedlam Lowertown in St. Paul, and at a Spoken Word dinner hosted by South s.t.a.r.t.  Cleveland was also a panelist at a “Community Panel Discussion on Standardized Testing” hosted by the Northeast Middle School Debate Team.

Through our work, students of all ages are learning that they, too, can be educators in our community.  As such, they can influence the growing narrative about equity in our schools and beyond.

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