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The Anti-Standardized Testing Movement Claims a Victory in Chicago

In a move seen by some activists as a concession to Chicago’s strong anti-testing movement, the district will test only 10 percent of its 664 schools.

Months of organizing culminated in students at more than 60 Chicago schools opting out of a Common Core mandated exam and teachers at two schools refusing to administer it. (Image: Alberto G. / Flickr)

In a move seen by some activists as a concession to Chicago’s strong anti-testing movement, Chicago Public Schools won’t administer the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a test required by federal mandate as part of the new Common Core curriculum. Instead, the district will test only 10 percent of its 664 schools.

Parents and teachers led a boycott of the ISAT, the precursor to the PARCC, back in February 2014. Months of organizing culminated in students at more than 60 schools opting out of the test and teachers at two schools refusing to administer it.

The reason, according to CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s testimony at a Board of Education meeting, was that the district does not have enough computers for all students to take the online test. Byrd-Bennett also noted that she wasn’t clear on PARCC’s benefits for students and voiced concerns about over-testing.

But the decision puts CPS in a difficult situation as federal education officials have ramped up their pressure on the district to administer the test. The Department of Education is threatening to withhold $1.2 billion in federal funding—essentially 84 percent of federal education funding on offer—from the perpetually cash-strapped state if school districts do not administer the full test, according to a previously unpublicized letter from Department of Education officials published in full by Crain’s Chicago. CPS had previously asked both the state and federal education department’s for a waiver from administering the PARCC. Both bodies rejected it.

The stakes for students and teachers in urban school districts are increasingly high as anti-testing and anti-Common Core pushback spreads across the country. The public schools superintendent of wealthy nearby suburb Winnetka penned a letter published in the Washington Post expressing concern about the PARCC exam and standardized tests in general. Gov. Bobby Jindal has requested that the test be withdrawn from Louisiana, and parents in Arkansas are encouraging others to opt-out of the PARCC.

For the anti-testing movement, CPS’s dilemma is seen as a win.

Sarah Chambers, a leader in last winter’s anti-testing boycott, a Chicago Teachers Union activist and a teacher at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, says the district’s decision not to force the PARCC test on teachers is a result of last year’s organizing.

“The only reason that they really stepped back is because of the pushback they’ve gotten from parents, students and teachers,” said Chambers, a special education teacher.

But in many ways, Chambers emphasizes, it’s only a partial victory for the anti-testing movement. The bigger battle, she says, is less about any particular test than the ways in which teaching towards standardized tests take up valuable learning time; what’s more, according to Chambers, the tests’ results are used to deny funding to schools already struggling with limited resources and poverty.

“They want to label our schools and our teachers a failure so they can ultimately privatize our schools,” she says. “Education companies … like Pearson are making billions in profit off these tests.”

Byrd-Bennett first announced that she’d be requesting a testing waiver for CPS from the Illinois Board of Education and the U.S. Department of Education in October 2014.

Then in November 2014, Raise Your Hand, a parent group that has been at the forefront of the anti-testing movement in Chicago, delivered more than 3,500 signatures on a petition against PARCC to the Illinois State Board of Education, asking the board to delay the test. Shortly after, Byrd-Bennett requested a testing waiver from the state and the federal government.

Other states have successfully received waivers—in 2014, California objected to giving its students both the state tests and Common Core-aligned tests during a transition year and successfully became the fourth state to receive a waiver from the Department of Education, according to EdSource.

Despite these entreaties, the Illinois State Board of Education denied the request for a waiver. The U.S. Department of Education, headed by former Chicago CEO Arne Duncan, had initially taken a back seat in the discussion until the publication of the letter. Neither CPS nor the ISBE responded to requests for comment for this story.

Education historian and testing critic Diane Ravitch responded to the Department of Education’s threat to cut off $1.2 billion in education funding with indignation, saying that Duncan had overstepped his bounds in strong-arming Illinois into administering the PARCC. “If he cuts any funding, Illinois should sue him,” she wrote.

For the 66 or so schools in Chicago that will likely be taking the PARCC, parent advocates are encouraging another round of the tried-and-true tactic of opting out.

Much like the back-and-forth around the ISAT boycott, More Than a Score has accused the Illinois State Board of Education of deliberately misinforming parents. According to the October 28, 2014 Weekly Report from state superintendent Christopher A. Koch, “opting out of PARCC is not an option.”

That statement, More Than A Score claims on their website, is incorrect. “The law regarding students’ refusing state mandated accountability testing has not changed since last year. State and federal law say that schools must administer these tests, but not that children must take them.”

The Chicago Teachers Union’s Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators leadership has long opposed standardized testing, and they’ve taken on the fight against the PARCC. On January 14, the union’s House of Delegates passed a resolution to oppose PARCC, voting to support a campaign of parent opt-outs. The resolution encouraged teachers to hold PARCC practice sessions, allowing parents to see the test for themselves (an experiment conducted by the New York Times) and called for an audit of the time and resources expended on high stakes testing.

Zerlina Smith, a parent and education activist who helped lead last year’s boycott of the ISAT at Saucedo, questions the endgame in pushing standardized tests.

“All these tests are designed to set up black and brown kids for failure,” says Smith, who is running as an aldermanic candidate in the 29th Ward, an area on the city’s economically depressed West Side that saw multiple school closings as part of CPS’ 2012-13 shuttering of 49 schools, in the February 24 local elections.

Though the schools were ostensibly closed for low enrollment, Smith says that schools in her area were caught in a spiral of low grades, fewer resources, the opening of charters and the removal of students from neighborhood public schools—in which high-stakes testing, she says, play a key part.

“If parents want to send their children to a neighborhood school, they need to have that option. If I don’t want to sit a 5-year-old down and grill the child on a continuous basis of time, I should have that option,” Smith says.

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