Opting Out

CPS parents and teachers resist high-stakes standardized tests

Two years ago, Joy Clendenning, a Hyde Park mother of three CPS students, was walking her kids home after school when one of them broke down in tears. 

“Mom,” the sixth grader said, “I don’t want to take that MAP test anymore.”

Clendenning’s children had never had problems with standardized tests before, but that year her twin sixth graders started hearing a lot about growth—about showing improvement from test to test, getting more points, fixing weaknesses. These assessments included the Northwest Evaluation Association Measures of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP), a district-wide assessment used to evaluate teachers and schools. That winter, one of her sixth graders didn’t improve from the fall test, and the other’s score fell by two points.

“There was then a class discussion with the teacher,” Clendenning said, “where the teacher congratulated the class and said, ‘This is really great, most of you really showed growth, terrific.’ And then she said, ‘A few of you stayed the same, and a couple of you went down, and we’re really going to have to figure out what to do about that.’”

After this experience, Clendenning started opting her children out of some of the standardized assessments. It’s a simple process: parents need only send a letter or email to the school principal. But as the opt-out movement has gained momentum over the past few years, it has come under fire from the Illinois State Board of Education, which, in an October 28 newsletter, told schools that that parents were not allowed to opt their students out of the controversial Common Core-based PARCC assessment, which is set for spring 2015.

According to Cassie Creswell, organizer of More Than a Score, a grassroots coalition of parent, teacher, and community groups opposed to high-stakes testing, the ISBE’s declaration is untrue. Provisions in the ISBE’s regulations for standardized testing allow for children who refuse to take the test—or, Creswell said, allow for parents who refuse on their children’s behalf, since the students are legal minors.

“The language of the law is that the state must administer the test to all kids,” Creswell said, “which does not mean that all kids are compelled to take the test.”

Students have been opting out of standardized tests for years, she said, with no repercussions. Creswell cited thousands of CPS students who opted out of the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) in at least ninety schools this past spring, and several teachers at Little Village’s Saucedo Academy and Drummond Montessori in Bucktown who boycotted the test. None were disciplined.

The ISBE statement also claimed that schools must test all students in order to receive funding from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). But it’s more complicated than that—NCLB requires schools to test ninety-five percent of their students, but even when they do so, most schools in CPS don’t score well enough to meet NCLB requirements.

The high stakes of test results come in other forms—NWEA MAP scores are used to promote students from third, sixth, and eighth grades and to determine placement in selective-enrollment high schools. In these situations, many parents are hesitant to opt their students out of tests. But even when individual students opt out, the tests still loom large for teachers, principals, and schools, whose ratings depend directly on test results.

“Standardized testing is not supposed to be used for…these kind of decisions, and it’s really being misused,” Creswell said.

Refusing to take or administer the tests is a form of resistance, what Creswell calls “driving a wedge” into the system. More Than a Score aims to educate parents about opting out and inform them about students’ testing experiences in general. Clendenning got involved with the organization through these outreach programs and believes the opt-out movement plays a major role in increasing parent awareness and involvement. “Opt-out is a strategy to empower individual parents and students and families, to help them understand what their rights are,” she said.

But it’s not just about the politics; for some students, Creswell said, opting out of standardized testing is a matter of urgency.

“There are individual students who are really horribly, negatively impacted by testing, like in the case of severe test anxiety,” she said. “If they just don’t test well, it’s not a good measure of what they know and what they’ve learned at all.”

Carolyn Brown, a teacher at Thomas Kelly High School in Brighton Park, said the testing process is frustrating for teachers, who can see students’ progress in their work but not in their test scores. It quickly becomes demoralizing, she said, for both teachers and students.

“Ultimately what we have, at least at the high school level, is an entire generation of kids that have been told yearly that they’re not smart enough, that they’re not up to standard, that they’re below average, that they’re unable to perform well in school,” Brown said. “And they believe it. They internalize it.”

Many opponents of the tests also cite the cost of standardized tests—the state of Illinois will pay $160 million over four years for the PARCC test alone. Many of the tests also require additional technological resources; Clendenning said she was shocked to learn that the computer lab at her kids’ school was occupied by students taking tests for over a month.

Sarah Chambers, a teacher at Saucedo who participated in the ISAT boycott, believes that these circumstances provide teachers with a clear incentive to boycott.

“You don’t want to do harm to your students,” she said. “Just how doctors have to sign an agreement to do no harm to their clients, teachers don’t want to harm to their students. These tests are causing harm.”

Brown said that until recently, she and other teachers and students who refuse to participate in testing have been able to do so quietly, without repercussions, because they were so few. The ISAT boycott was a different story, Chambers explained: teachers were threatened with firings and loss of teaching licenses, students were questioned by CPS officials, and some students who opted out were left in crowded rooms or without breakfast.

While the extent of the boycott drew the ire of the CPS administration, Chamber believes the resulting media attention gave credence to the opt-out movement and ultimately protected teachers from disciplinary action.

“CPS had tons of bad publicity, and so did Rahm Emanuel,” she said. “So the more people who opt out, the more people who boycott, the more likely it is that they will drop some of these standardized tests.”

The upcoming PARCC test is under scrutiny after CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced at a board meeting in October that she has applied to the Illinois State Board of Education for a waiver, hoping to delay the test’s implementation another year. If the waiver fails, Chambers said, she believes there will be “massive” opt-outs and boycotts across Chicago.

This reflects a shift in attitude and awareness of high-stakes tests in the city, Brown said.

“The conversation around standardized testing has been so internal in the world of educators, kind of arguing back and forth and discussing about it,” Brown said. “I think for many years it’s been teachers complaining behind the scenes and frustrated, but not feeling like they could do anything about it….But I think when you have the support of parents and students it gives strength to the movement, and it forces it out into the open.”

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