It's almost testing season! In Chicago, opt out at your peril

It's almost testing season! In Chicago, opt out at your peril

CPS CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett has got wind of the fact that some parents are sick and tired of standardized testing.

What are these parents sick and tired of, exactly?

They are sick of their children's fear and frustration during testing time. They are over the notion that their children must constantly show improvement, even if they are already years ahead of grade level. They find it upsetting to see their children fear for their school or teacher if scores aren't maintained. They're disgusted with the way that test prep sits in their children's curriculum like a cowbird hatchling in another bird's nest, knocking all the other eggs out so it can settle its oversized, open-mouthed self comfortably.

If these parents have done a little reading, they may also be sick and tired of the way testing has come to dominate our schools by means of aggressive corporate lobbying of Congress. They may find it disgusting that companies like Pearson reap exponentially expanding profits from their increasing array of tests, test prep aides, and curricular materials. (Pearson lobbies Congress, Congress demands new tests, new tests require billions paid to Pearson to develop and disseminate. Go peek at H.R. 5 for a teensy taste of the process.)

These parents want to stand up against standardized testing. Against what sometimes seems like an impenetrable wall of bubble sheets.

And so they are choosing the only viable option available to them: opting out. That is, they are refusing to allow their children to take these tests. They don't think it's imperative that their child be assessed by 15 to 20 standardized instruments a year, which as More Than A Score has recently pointed out, is entirely possible and in fact typical in CPS schools (no, really, click that link) despite Byrd Bennett's claims. (Also, standardized testing often starts in preschool now, for those of you late to the testing party.)

Barbara Byrd Bennett has started to hear about this parent rebellion. She had to come up with a response.

Did she listen to parents' concerns? Their questions? Their anger at their schools' curriculum being squeezed out and replaced with test prep? Their astonishment that 30% of a teacher's evaluation, 50% of a principals' evaluation, and that 65% of a schools' evaluation is based on test scores? Their disgust that their children are growing to hate school, to hate reading, to hate testing, to hate what they now imagine learning to be? Their disgust that "bubbling" is taught in Kindergarten?

Of course not!

She fired off a letter.

Two letters, really.

One for the teachers. And one for parents. Because it's almost "testing season," and this little failure to see eye to eye needs to be resolved quickly and quietly.

In both letters, she discoursed long and unclearly about the importance of testing, hinted that she was aware that some parents wanted to opt out, and finished with an array of veiled threats about how "your child's future could be negatively impacted" to those who chose to do so.

Highlights from the parent letter include the part where she says that 3rd, 6th, and 8th graders who opt out of the NWEA MAP will not be promoted. This fact also has summer school implications, according to district policy that she doesn't go into. These kids also won't be eligible for selective enrollment consideration, regardless of whether or not they are straight A students with genius IQs. She says parents must meet with the principal and present a written request to opt out, and assures them that their children will have no instruction whatever during the time they are not in testing.

Now, I can see using the scores from one standardized test for a portion of selective enrollment admission, even if I might not put it exactly that way.

But how about a test that is officially no longer used for anything? A test on its way out--the ISAT--is still being administered this year for reasons that are murky at best. Byrd Bennett cautions against opting out of the ISAT too, although that's two more weeks of QUIET IN THE HALLS and bubbling, confusion for lots of kids and boredom for others, and many, many more weeks of prep for this obsolete exam.

For the teachers' letter,  she adds a couple little zingers. She warns that school evaluations will suffer in schools with less than 95% participation in testing. And she reminds them of her zero tolerance policy about cheating. (To keep her district safe, presumably, from the temptation that befell Atlanta's heavily incentivized school district, where 35 teachers and principals went to the pokey for cheating on standardized tests.)

We've been getting spoken to this way for so many years here in Chicago that we don't even necessarily notice anymore. The letter reads like a long, bureaucratic blah blah blah. One does not immediately notice the disrespectfulness, the threats, the presumption of guilt.

One might not immediately notice the utter backasswardness with regard to the proper order of things--you know, where parents are the primary caregivers for children and school is where we send them, ostensibly, to learn stuff. What besides such a fundamental inversion accounts for this ham-handed tone as she closes her missive to parents?

You are essential to your child's education and I value your contribution for the work you do each day in raising Chicago's next generation.

Actually, ma'am, with all due respect, let me state it another way: we thank you for your contribution. (Except let's be honest: really, I'm not that thankful.)

For contrast, I want to direct your attention to another letter.

It's from a school superintendent (remember when they used to call them that?) in New York state. He too is finding some resistance to their testing regimen.

He responds a little differently. Seriously, this dude could be in another country.

rella letter

How impressive is his statement that it is the parents' right to direct their children's education and upbringing? Seems like that shouldn't even be a question. But it is in the schools, and Superintendent Rella's answer is worlds apart from CEO Byrd Bennett's, who is thanking us for our contribution to her work.

Also, his letter has no threats.

Have you ever wondered what it might be like if we had an accountable CPS administration and school board? People who took parents' concerns seriously? What it might be like not to be burdened by a system so Big Brothery that even in the face of 20+ annual standardized tests in our schools, we're not allowed to question? And if we are, we're spoken to like naughty children and given punishments little and large? What would it be like to have a school system that respects, listens to, and heeds parents and teachers--rather than corporate interests and rich donor friends?

Want to find out? Or try?

I have two ideas for today.

One, think seriously about opting your child out of the ISATs this year. Our district does not listen to our words. They might listen to actions. There are folks who believe that the only way to get attention on this testing issue is action. The only way to stop the testing insanity is to stop taking the tests. Throw a wrench in the testing industry by refusing to participate. You can find out everything you need to know about this from More Than A Score.

And two, please let the mayor know we're done. Done with overtesting, done with lining the pockets of the testing companies, done with a non-elected school board, done with a CEO whose Broad Foundation-instilled goals are to defund public education, privatize, and promote charters.

Call him and tell him at 312/744-3300. And since he probably won't listen, be sure to call your alderman too.

If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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