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17 at Bonita Vista High Displease Their Principal

Susan Notes: Three cheers for students who stood up for their rights--despite bullying school staff. Send in your letters to the newspaper showing your support for the students.

Some of the brightest kids at top-ranked Bonita Vista High School refused last week to take the state tests that will keep their school atop the academic heap.

Originally, more than 40 students rebelled because of the glut of tough exams they face this time of year, which include Advanced Placement exams, International Baccalaureate exams and SATs.

After some pleading and some say veiled threats from the principal, more than half relented and took the tests. But 17 still "opted out," with their parents' permission.

For them, the question was whether to support their school's need to perform well in tests that evaluate school quality, or put their energy into the tests that could help them most in the highly competitive college application process.

"I can understand that it is the principal's job to look out for the school's welfare," said Caitlin O'Neill, a junior who was among those who boycotted the state tests. "We could definitely see why the API scores were important to him," she said, referring to the Academic Performance Index, which rates schools statewide.

"But it was just an overwhelming amount of testing," O'Neill said.

"Whether other people view it as selfish or not, it is our personal and legal right" to refuse to take the standardized state tests, she said.

Students earn college credits through the AP tests, and the SATs carry a lot of weight in college admissions. Many of the students involved are also enrolled in the International Baccalaureate classes, hoping to earn a prestigious internationally recognized diploma.

The students who opted out of the state tests last week were banned from campus while the testing took place for four hours each day, Tuesday through Friday. O'Neill said she and most of the others stayed home and studied for their Advanced Placement tests, which are taking place this week.

She and many others took the SATs on Saturday, and the AP U.S. History exam on Sunday. The International Baccalaureate exams are also being held this week.

But now they fear reprisals. O'Neill and others said that Principal Ramon Leyba came to their AP U.S. History class April 26 and told them, among other things, that the names of students who opted out would be circulated to their teachers. He cautioned them that these were the same teachers who had been preparing them for years for the tests, teachers whom they would be asking for letters of recommendation for college admissions.

O'Neill said she took that as a threat, and a challenge. "If he had taken a more sympathetic outlook instead of being hostile, maybe we would have taken a different approach," she said. "I think that made it worse."

Some students who'd chosen to opt out relented and took the tests. Parent Peggie Myers said her daughter, also a junior, was afraid she'd be unable to get the letters of recommendation she needed for her application to Columbia University's summer school program, which she was in the process of applying for last week.

"The pressure these kids are under is ridiculous. It's out of control," Myers said. "Something has to give, and it can't be the emotional health of our children."

"So no, I didn't want her taking the standardized tests," Myers said. "It's not going to get her into a better college."

The federal government requires that 95 percent of each school's students take the tests. Even high-scoring schools like Bonita Vista are expected to meet improvement goals each year or risk being labeled "underperforming." If the school repeatedly fails to hit certain benchmarks set by the state and federal government, it risks losing funding, having to allow students to transfer to better schools, or even being taken over by a private management company.

Leyba said he realized there was a rebellion brewing when he began receiving dozens of opt-out forms the Friday before the testing began.

He admits pressuring the AP students to take the standardized tests. "I talked about the importance of the test, and the implications for the school," he said. "I told them our faculty is upset about this, and they think it is unconscionable.

"I did tell the kids there are consequences to the choices we make, and that's what happens in the real world," Leyba said.

In retrospect, he said, if he'd had more time he might have done it differently.

"I can understand how the students would feel upset or pressured, but I have an obligation to uphold the academic standards of the school," he said. "That's what the community expects."

The Academic Performance Index ranges from 200 to 1,000, and the state's eventual goal is for all schools to hit 800. Only eight high schools in the county hit that mark this year.

Bonita Vista was not among them, but the South Bay school has had the highest scores of all the high schools in the Sweetwater Union High School District until just the past year, when Eastlake High School surpassed it.

"Bonita Vista has always been at the top," Leyba said. "If it slips, pressure comes from the community . . . and that, for me, is more of a driving force in terms of accountability."

District officials said they hadn't heard of a similar rebellion taking place at other high schools this year. But there have been occasional flurries of resistance to the state tests in the past.

In 2001, a Scripps Ranch High School student got in trouble for distributing leaflets telling students about their right to opt out of the state testing. That year 118 students at the school didn't take the test about 8 percent of the students. The ACLU eventually forced the school principal to issue a written apology for confiscating the student's fliers.

— Leslie Wolf Branscomb
Union Tribune


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