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Chicagoans Fight for Education and Against Standardized Testing
(Photo: WBEZ / Flickr)

Chicagoans Fight for Education and Against Standardized Testing

(Photo: WBEZ / Flickr)

You wouldn’t be mistaken for thinking that education activists in Chicago were fighting a defensive fight. The district plans to shut down nearly 13 percent of the public schools in the city as a contract with the Gates Foundation to open 60 new charters waits in the wings.

Meanwhile, youth violence continues, with 13 children age 18 or younger being killed by gun violence so far in 2013, a state of affairs that advocates argue will only get worse if the school closings go forward.

But the fight isn’t only defensive. Students, teachers and parents are also behind a movement that is pushing for things they want from education, as well as trying to stop the measures – like the closures – that they oppose.

Groups like More Than a Score and Students Against High Stakes Standardized Test are fighting for less testing and more playing through sit-ins and play-ins to protest standardized testing.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is one of More Than a Score’s supporters and has said that it wholeheartedly supports the fight against non-state standardized tests, a position that Jen Johnson, a history teacher at Lincoln Park High School and a member of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) steering committee, says is part of the CTU’s larger goal of social justice unionism.

“It’s fairly safe to say that school closings are more than a bread-and-butter battle,” and so are issues of over-testing, said Johnson.

Testing Hits a Nerve

Chicago is not the first city to have a not-so-subterranean rumble against testing. That mantle goes to Seattle, where one high school’s boycott of the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test in January opened the door to letters of solidarity from around the country and a growing consensus that students may be over-tested.

Johnson attributes the rising anger at testing to the “rapid escalation of the use of testing. It has been strong-armed into schools across the country,” and how it is “being used to blame all the stakeholders.”

The first recorded instance of standardized testing in Europe came about as students left farms and factories for schools during the Industrial Revolution, but George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program still stands as one of the key catalysts that brought testing into classrooms all around the United States.

Under NCLB, states were required to develop math and reading standards and test children in grades 3 through 8. NCLB also requires schools to “disaggregate” the testing data, a process PBS describes as “designed to close the so-called ‘achievement gap’ between highly proficient students and under-served, less proficient students by eliminating distortions and variations masked by school-wide averages.”

But in her experience, says Johnson, the testing regime only perpetuates inequalities.

She paints a picture of teachers put in underfunded classrooms, like those in Chicago without air conditioners or enough books to go around, administering tests to students who may not have had enough to eat that morning, or may be facing homelessness, as nearly 3,000 CPS students are.

Research on standardized testing and inequality has found testing reinforces inequality. Paul Thomas of Furman University has been vocal about tests as a reflection of socioeconomic conditions and says that the emphasis on testing legitimizes this inequality of opportunity.

Other studies, such as that from Jo Boaler of Stanford University, have found that standardized testing judges language learners and students from minority ethnic and cultural groups particularly harshly.

Rather than receiving the counseling and learning that vulnerable students need, says Johnson, they are given stressful tests, for which teachers in turn face harsh judgment when results are not satisfactory.

Not the First Time Testing an Issue of Contention

One of the key issues that Chicago teachers went to strike over was the possible introduction of a “value-added” teacher evaluation system that would have used students’ standardized test scores as 40 percent of a teacher’s yearly evaluation and fired educators who didn’t improve their test scores a certain amount.

The Chicago Teachers Union claimed at the time that 30 percent of teachers in the district could face losing their jobs if the testing evaluations went through, and a group of researchers from around the country signed an open letter against the evaluation system.

Meanwhile, the focus on testing shone a light on the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel sends his children and where the school’s director has come out publicly against the use of standardized testing in evaluating teachers.

“Measuring outcomes through standardized testing and referring to those results as the evidence of learning and the bottom line is, in my opinion, misguided and, unfortunately, continues to be advocated under a new name and supported by the current [Obama] administration,” David Magill, the Lab School’s director, wrote.

The battle against testing hasn’t only taken off in Seattle and Chicago, but also in Texas and Portland, Oregon.

CTU President Karen Lewis, speaking at a a meeting in Chicago on the fight against standardized testing with Jesse Hagopian, a teacher from the school that first began boycotting a standardized test, said that both she and Hagopian were seeing the same trends in their school districts.

“We were listening to the same stories,” said Lewis, “about how gentrification was pushing school closings in black neighborhoods. You tend to think that it’s only happening to you. We are experiencing the injustice, and then finding out there is a play book; they have a playbook.”

The Fight Goes On

In the resignation letter of a teacher recently published by The Washington Post, Gerald J. Conti, a social studies teacher at Westhill High School in Syracuse, New York, writes:

“Data driven” education seeks only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core, along with a lockstep of oversimplified so-called Essential Learnings. Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education and particularly not at Westhill.

Speaking to Truthout only days after it was announced that the Seattle teachers boycotting standardized tests won’t be punished, Johnson said she sees the fight against standardized testing and school closings as no less than a fight for the future standard of living of working people.

“There is a much larger issue of complete divestment from these communities,” said Johnson. “Our stance is that we are protecting public education as well as community stability and working-class families.”

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