More than 100 high school students from across the city walked out of classes Friday and rallied peacefully outside Baltimore school headquarters to protest standardized testing.
Their action was planned by the youth-led activist group Baltimore Algebra Project, a nonprofit operated by people under age 25. The group has partnered with the school district for years to tutor students and advocate for education reform.
The students left their schools at noon and gathered at the school district's headquarters on North Avenue at 1 p.m., where they engaged in chants such as "No PARCC, we want freedom; all these standardized tests, we don't need them."
They also held signs that read "Jobs not tests."
The group organized the event as a protest against the new, tougher state exam called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. The exam measures students' understanding of a new, more rigorous curriculum aligned with national Common Core standards that are designed to make students more academically competitive globally.
The Algebra Project's position is that the exam "was designed to make students of color fail and go to jail."
Horns blared up and down North Avenue as passing motorists showed support for the protesters, who spent about an hour expressing their frustrations about the prospect of multiple-choice questions determining their futures.
"This is about taking back our education," said Alanis Brown, a sophomore at Baltimore Design School and a youth organizer for the Algebra Project. "This is sending the message that we're tired of being statistics."
Passing the PARCC exam, which students across Maryland began taking last year, will be a graduation requirement beginning in 2017. Seniors are required to take the exam this year but don't have to pass it in order to graduate.
Last year's results showed that most of the state's students couldn't pass the test.
Leete Doty, a sophomore at Polytechnic Institute, was one of those students. He said he refused to take the exam a second time because he felt there was no point. Even though he was a ninth-grader taking first-year algebra, the test included 12th-grade calculus problems, he said.
"It was way over my grade level," said Doty, as he walked out of Poly shortly after noon Friday. "I thought that I would rather go to my classes and actually learn than take a test I knew I was going to fail."
While acknowledging standardized tests are helpful, Doty called them "a very one-dimensional way to look at a person."
The exam has been the source of debate in Maryland and around the country. Some states such as Ohio have abandoned it altogether.
School districts in Maryland have experienced haphazard implementation of the new curriculum and difficulties administering the online exams.
Teachers and students also have complained that the testing period takes weeks longer than prior ones and takes away from instructional time.
Because Maryland's pass rates are so low, the state school board is considering how high it can set the bar for graduation.
In a statement, city school officials stressed that the test is a state mandate, and that parents are not allowed to opt their children out of the exam. Students entering high school next year will have to earn a passing score that has not yet been determined by the Maryland State Department of Education.
Shanaiah Evans, a senior at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, said she guessed most of the answers on her PARCC test, and wrote "N/A" on the essays, but participated in the protest to support her brother who is in the ninth grade and will have to pass it.
"It was so bad I had to guess, and I don't want him to have to go through that," she said. "They're forcing us to take a test we're doomed to fail."
City schools CEO Gregory Thornton and other district leaders met with Algebra Project leaders last night to address their concerns, according to the schools' statement.
"City schools' leaders support student social activism and civil engagement and are interested in hearing their concerns," the statement said. "City schools leaders are committed to maintaining a good working relationship with the organizers in order to engage in ongoing productive discussions."
Algebra Project co-executive director Antwain Jordan said he was "ecstatic" at the turnout Friday.
"We're taking steps in the right direction," he said. "We got people's attention, and they're listening."
Some schools threatened to punish students who walked out of class Friday, including Polytechnic Institute, where fliers plastered around the school announced that students who participated could miss events such as prom and lose the opportunity to make up missed assignments.
At other schools, like Frederick Douglass High, students said that administrators announced their support for civil disobedience but that students should be smart and safe.
The district's official statement said "students who are purposefully absent may be subject to provisions outlined within the City Schools Code of Conduct."