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Baltimore student activists plan walkout to protest standardized testing

Baltimore City Schools students plan walkout Friday in protest of standardized tests.

A youth-led activists group in Baltimore City has planned a districtwide student walkout on Friday to protest standardized testing, which they call a mechanism of institutional racism.

The walkout, planned by the Baltimore Algebra Project, is scheduled to take place at noon.  A 1 p.m. rally will take place at Baltimore city school headquarters.

The non-profit, which is operated and lead by youth under the age of 25, has partnered with the district for years, tutoring in schools and advocating for education policy reform.

Jamal Jones, co-executive director of the Algebra Project, said the group set its sights on the PARCC test this year because it represents some of the oppressive policies that have been laid bare since the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died of injuries he sustained in police custody last year.

As the anniversary of Gray's death and riots that ensued after nears, Jones said this was an opportune time to make a statement about how standardized testing is stifling tens of thousands of city schoolchildren.

"In the wake of the uprising, it's critical to understand how the structures of institutional racism led to systems that put Freddie Gray in the position to experience police brutality, and so many other young people in the position to believe that they're inferior," Jones said. 

The group made a music video that denounces the PARCC exam, a tougher state standardized test that measures a new curriculum.

The lyrics to the song featured in the music video read:

Dey want us take dis test but man its so weak!!
Id rather b at work getting some mo G's !!
Headquarters scared because dey seen boycott tweets
Dey using dis test to tell me wat imma b
Dey prolly want me in jail or prolly in deese streets

The PARCC exam measures a new, more rigorous curriculum aligned with national Common Core standards that are designed to make students more globally competitive.

The Algebra Project's position is that the exam "was designed to make students of color fail and go to jail."

The exam has also been the source of angst and debate in Maryland around the country.

School districts have experienced haphazard implementation of the new curriculum and difficulties taking the exams online. Teachers and students have also complained that the test -- one of about a half-dozen required in the city -- is weeks longer than prior ones and taking away from instructional time.

Based on this year's test scores, most students in the Baltimore region could not pass the exam. The state school board is currently trying to determine the passing grade, and how it will be used as a graduation requirement in 2017. This year, seniors will still have to take the exam in order to graduate.

Baltimore City and Baltimore County had a particularly poor showing on the exam. Only 9 percent of city students and 22 percent of county students met or exceeded the standard for Algebra I.

"Many of our students are not great test-takers, not that test taking is a critical skill. what is a critical skill is the ability to apply what they're learning in and outside of the classroom," Jones said.

Some states like Ohio have abandoned the exam altogether. The Algebra Project wants the city school system to follow suit and use the money it spends on PARCC toward other measures that are tailored to Baltimore youth -- like internships and jobs.

The rally will serve as a kick-off to a campaign to boycott standardized testing in Baltimore.

"Standardized testing really overlooks the uniqueness of Baltimore," Jones said. "There's no way to cookie cut education. Folks who are not from the community or removed from the community, even state lawmakers, are making decisions about the adequacy of instruction here and the educational capacity of the students here.  That is ridiculous."

Jones said that he is in talks with city schools CEO Gregory Thornton's administration about whether abandoning the test, a state mandate, is possible.

He said the rally at North Avenue on Friday is more symbolic than confrontational, and that Thornton has been more receptive to student concerns than many CEOs in the past. 

"It's no secret that Baltimore's education system could be better, and people are constantly wrapping their head about how to improve education here," Jones said.

"But as much money as we pour into education, we're doing a disservice in our spending if we can't figure out another way to quantify and measure learning. If the answer is  'we need to test you because that's all we got,' we're doing something very wrong," he said.

The Baltimore city school system has not yet responded to a request for comment about the walkout. Baltimore city police said they are aware of the protest and notifying appropriate parties.

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

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