The presidential primaries are putting a huge emphasis on political engagement among our youth, but some youth are cutting their political teeth on issues closer to home.
At Venice High School, two students have started the Union of Venice Students to inform their classmates about their rights, especially the right to opt out of standardized tests.
The students, Cobalt and Ruben, were inspired by the movie “Defies Measurement”, a documentary that traces the transformation of an Oakland, California school from a creative, nurturing incubator for students into a test prep institution. The documentary is a moving portrayal of corporate education reforms sucking the life out of a school.
Armed with detailed information and plenty of passion, the Union of Venice Students is imploring their classmates to get engaged and opt out of the upcoming standardized tests.
I interviewed these courageous and intelligent activists after a copy of their no-longer-underground newspaper Venice Posted found its way to me.
PS: So how did you get involved in student politics?
Ruben: The school system is here for us. It’s always been a philosophy of mine, but with the student union, I felt as though it would be a powerful way for us to really kind of establish that philosophy among our fellow peers. Get more and more students involved in what’s going on in our education system.
Cobalt: My focus on the union is awareness of rights. Because in state law, with education code and all that, there are all these rights that students have. But students don’t know they have these rights and the administration doesn’t recognize these rights. So that, I think, is one of the main forces of evil.
PS: Evil is a pretty big opponent, but you don’t strike me as someone Waiting for Superman. How are you fighting evil?
Ruben: Last semester I sent an email to our principal where my stance was on the Smarter Balanced test and I was kind of asking her why she was putting so much pressure on it. I told her Instead of focusing on these exams, we should maybe focus on making the school better. Ya know? Well, she really rebuffed it and kinda said, ‘oh, just meet with me in person’. I really wanted something in writing, too, to see what her stance was on it.
Ruben: I felt it’s more clear what her position is and there’s no miscommunication, where, ‘I heard she said this.’ Having it in writing is what she said, to make it more clear.
PS: Is this the first time you’ve considered political action?
Cobalt: I’ve always been sort of saying ‘hey, I’ve got this right and I should be allowed to exercise this right’. It has gotten me into some trouble in the past.
One of the rules at school is you’re not allowed to wear hats that don’t have the Venice High School logo on it. But I always saw that as infringing on my free speech. So I have this hat with a red star on it that I bought when I was in China. And I always wear that. Then this year I got called out on it. I was in the Dean’s office for three hours while they basically told me that if I didn’t agree to follow this rule they were going to send me out of the school. That’s how that ended, I sort of stopped wearing the hat because I wanted to focus more on organizing this so we could have a larger body with more strength than just one person wearing his hat.
PS: Kind of the opposite of a dunce cap. What else?
Cobalt: The [administration] is putting in a lot of things to convince students that you’re better off taking the test. She’s bringing back the policy of Off-campus passes for seniors next year. The requirements are you have to have 3.0 GPA, high attendance, and you have to have taken the Smarter Balanced test. There’s also, I’ve heard talk of local businesses giving money to the school for every student that takes the test and some teachers are only going to sign you letters of recommendation [for college] if you take the test.
Cobalt: Yeah, a couple of my teachers have said that they would only sign you a letter of recommendation if you’ve taken the test.
PS: So is that the typical response from your teachers?
Ruben: We have an interesting response from teachers. Either you’re completely for the test or you’re completely against the test. That’s something we’ve noticed, a trend. Several teachers have approached us telling us to kind of quiet down, I want to say, with our distribution of our newsletter, and other teachers are completely endorsing us like ‘yeah, I’m with you 100%’. But they don’t want to put it out there and, really stay out of trouble with the administration. I thought that was an interesting trend.
PS: Has the administration talked with you about your activism?
Cobalt: Not directly. She went to [our teacher] and told him to tell us to stop. He basically said, ‘I’m not in charge of them. They have this right to do that.’ She’s never actually come to us directly. She’s always tried to go indirectly around or talked to someone else to tell them to tell us to stop.
Ruben: More recently, she’s told all of my teachers. They’ve got pressure from the administration to tell us to stop distributing this newsletter.
PS: New York State had 200,000 opt outs last year. How many did Venice High have?
Cobalt: Last year, I feel like the bulk of the opt out movement was because it was happening at the same time as the AP tests, and not having anything to do with the whole standardized testing in general.
We’ve noticed that it seems to be flipping around this year. A lot of the people who have been telling me, “oh yeah, I’m definitely going to opt out’, most of the people who I feel like I’ve been hitting the most with this message are people who aren’t in AP classes. The people who seem to be in opposition to the movement the most are the ones who are in the AP classes.
Ruben: I think they’re just trying to be as much of a scholarly student as they possibly can.
Cobalt: There’s also a lot of propaganda going around about the test. Like if you don’t take this test your life is not going to be able to be good. You’re not going to be able to have a good college education. You have to take this test. It’s almost being brainwashed into some people that, this test, you have to take it.
PS: Last election, someone named Marshall Tuck ran against our State Superintendent on the platform that the Ed Code is too long and cumbersome for adults to understand. What do you think?
Cobalt: Ever since I’ve been getting into issues regarding free speech and stuff, I’ve gotten myself well versed in several sections of the Ed Code.
Ruben: He knows them like the palm of his hand.
Cobalt: Like, that one is Section 60615. I think it clearly says that these tests, you can’t be forced to take them, and the parent does have the right to opt them out. But I do feel like it should be worded as more of an explicit right and less of a ‘this is something you can do’. I feel like if it was listed as more of an explicit right, then that would, ya know, like all the things that are happening like with the principal saying, ‘you have to take the test in order to get this thing’, I feel like that would sort of stop because you can’t be punished for exercising your right.
Cobalt: Yeah, I don’t think we’ve gotten that.
PS: What do you think about the idea that parents just want to look at a school's overall test score to decide on a school for their kids? What do you say to them?
Cobalt: For me, when I was looking at schools, we first were looking around and my mom had found this school because of the foreign language magnet. I had always been into foreign languages. She said oh let’s go here. we went to the tour, one thing we noticed on the tour was the tour was being run by students and they were all happy to be at school and they loved the program and they were all talking about the activities and the clubs they were involved in, the classes they were taking. Someone mentioned that there was a trip to China they took with the Chinese class and that’s really what got me to want to come to this school. And then I went to another school and the entire first hour of the tour was sitting in the library watching a presentation, a powerpoint where they were talking about their curriculum and what they focus on and then going through their test scores, like a chart or graph of their test scores and you didn’t actually get to see the classes. What I liked about this school’s tour was that we went into a lot of classes. The other school, we didn’t go into any classes. It was just focusing on these scores and numbers that didn’t mean anything.
PS: You’ve been handing out the opt out forms. Do people get it?
Cobalt: Some people do. If they read the newspaper. I wanted to distribute it with the newspaper but I didn’t have enough copies printed. That was the only problem. So we’re going to have an Opt Out Day. We were originally planning to all stand out on the front lawn and make a large line and hand them out. Have a couple extra copies but then it rained that Friday. So we were stuck.
PS: In the movie, we pretty much see how a school district’s obsession with test scores can suck the life out of a school. Has all the life been sucked out of Venice High School?
Ruben: No, now it’s just two or three minutes of a teacher explaining why we have to take the tests. Not much of a curriculum change.
Cobalt: I feel like that will be coming soon. This is only the 2nd year of Smarter Balanced, so I think that as the years go on, curriculum will start to shift to teaching to this test specifically.
I’d always had the idea of, hey, teachers have a union. Maybe students should have a union. But then with the growing issues at the school, I decided, you know, I think we should actually start one.
PS: What do your parents think?
Ruben: They’re behind us 100%.
PS: There’s no standardized test for student activism. So how do you measure your success?
Cobalt: The way we distribute [the newspaper], is we go out in the hallways or after school out on the front lawn, and we just hand it to anyone we see. We look around and can see a couple people reading it. That’s what we like to see.
Ruben: We’re adamant about not distributing during class time. To make sure it’s legitimate and we don’t violate--
Cobalt: We don’t hand it out during class time because that can be disruptive.
Ruben: We have a lot of mixed response. The more scholarly students are like, ‘You guys are crazy. Stop doing this nonsense. Take the test and get over it.’
Cobalt: ‘You can’t do this. You’re going to hurt the school too much’. I‘ve heard other people saying, ‘Man, I’ve just read this, everything is so right, I’m opting out right now.’
PS: What else did learn from the movie?
Cobalt: In the movie, they said there was some law regarding statistics, that when you take a statistic that measures something and you really focus on it, then the focus shifts to the statistic itself rather than what that’s trying to measure.
What I think is happening is this country, the education system, the people in charge of it, the government and all that, is focusing on these test scores, but they’re not really focusing on what these test scores are measuring: the quality of our education.
PS: What do you think would be the best measure of your education?
Cobalt: Personally, I don’t think that you can measure the true quality of one’s education. I feel like that’s just too complex of a thing. It’s multi-sided. You can’t actually accurately measure it with any sort of testing, or any sort of assessment. It’s something that develops within a person and they take that and go into the real world and put that in action.
Ruben: I agree with him. We can’t be measured with numbers. We’re more than numbers. We’re human beings. We have different qualities. Some people have qualities in art. Some people love math. Some are more analytical. Some are a bit more closed minded. I feel like numbers, or choosing A, B, C or D really can’t measure what kind of human being you are. What’s your ranking as a human being?
PS: Are either of you planning to run for elected office any time soon?
Note: The school principal did not respond to requests for an interview.