Opt out and reclaim our schools

Opt out and reclaim our schools

There are two unanswered questions about this simple protest that CPS and suburban parents are undertaking. Parents are opting their children out of the ISAT test, scheduled to start this week, in huge numbers. CPS is flipping out.

First, why are so many parents joining in this protest? If this is either so insignificant as to make no difference, or so insubordinate as to threaten families' future educational opportunities (take your pick), then why are more and more families signing on, and why is this spreading to suburban schools?

And second, why is CPS responding with such hysteria, misinformation, and threats? If you're a parent who has chosen to opt out, no doubt you've already been told at least three different things about what will happen next week with your child. You've heard rumors from the great to the small about your child being required to go to summer school, your child not being promoted to the next grade, your child not being able to graduate, your child not getting her 8th grade class t-shirt until she takes the test.

Let's take a crack at some answers.

Parents may be joining in because they are beginning to realize how much of what happens in school is connected to standardized testing. Whereas there is only one District Wide Assessment (DWA) that counts for things like promotion and funding decisions, there are many other tests, some of which are viewed simply as practice for the others and all of which provide data to a government agency or corporation. We are admonished that test-taking builds test-taking skills and builds stamina for future, larger, harder tests. We are told that because American schools are failing and not preparing our children for the global marketplace, it's time to play hardball and crack our school systems into shape. More testing is the only answer.

So what might a year of testing look like for, say, an average 6th grader? Well, to start, this student would get the NWEA MAP test administered twice per year in reading and twice in math. The NWEA MAP is designed to be given three times in a year, but one round of these tests was cut by Barbara Byrd-Bennett. Some schools, however, are still giving the winter round of MAPs to see how their kids are doing.  Our random CPS 6th grader will also do the Common Core Benchmark Quarterly Tests, 3 times per year each of math, English Language Arts (ELA), and social sciences. The student will then have the REACH Performance Tasks, 2 times per year in literacy, math, science, and social studies. Then there's the high-stakes test which has in the past been the ISAT, and then there's the Access test of English Language acquisition. So for those of you not keeping count we are up to 23 standardized exams for our random typical 6th grader.

Let's look at a primary student. How about a 1st grader? Your typical CPS 1st grader is going to be tested 3 times a year in literacy by means of the NWEA MPG, the mClass TRC/IDEL, the Fountas/Pinnells, or another such instrument. They'll be tested three times for oral fluency most likely by the DIBELS assessment. They'll be tested 3 times in math by the NWEA MPG, mClass math or other similar test. Three times they'll get a Quarterly Benchmark in writing, and also do the REACH Performance task twice in literacy, and possibly also twice in art, world language, computers, library, music, and PE (assuming your child's school even has those things, which as we all know is not a guarantee in CPS). A 1st grader will also have the ACCESS test, but not a high stakes test such as the ISAT.

Are we done, or do you want to hear what Kindergarteners are tested in? Oh, let's just go ahead and tell you. Kindergarteners are tested 3 times a year in literacy, 3 in oral fluency, 3 in math, and 3 in writing, using all the same acronymed-tests as above. (I just couldn't bear to write them all out again.) Like 1st and 2nd graders, Kindergarteners don't get a high-stakes test either, and we should all be singing hallelujah for that because let's face it, not only are they just not all ready for prime time at this age, most of them have no idea how to use a keyboard and the headphones don't even fit them.

My suspicion, as I've heard from more and more parents last week, is that folks are starting to catch on to the scam--the scam that has been put over on us for years and is only getting worse. Our kids don't just take an ISAT. Rather, ISAT, as annoying as it is, is only the tip of the iceberg. The massive tsunami of tests currently overwhelming public education is a result of a perfect storm of bad policy, enterprising corporate players seeking to cash in on bad policy, and an electorate asleep at the wheel.

That's us, you know.

What's happened to our schools--and trust me, this thing has already happened--is that they have become the locus of a new and highly profitable industry, the testing industry. The reason that more tests do not make for better scores is a simple logical fallacy: testing does not equal learning. And harder tests do not mean more challenging education. And demanding rigor and higher order critical thinking is a joke because what kids are doing in these assessments is filling in bubble sheets. More tests only mean more profit for the testing industry. And harder tests mean more failure and greater calls for more tests, harder tests. And more profit. And so on.

We parents are starting to get it, no matter how many times the Department of Education tries to blame "coddling" white parents and "neglectful" black ones, no matter how they try to divert and confuse the issue and call their reforms the civil rights movement of our day. The emperor is not wearing any clothes and we have started to notice.

This ISAT opt-out is one way we have to say we notice. We see. We are opting our children out of an unnecessary test that has been phased out and is no-stakes.

It's not a crazy radical protest. It's a slam dunk of easy. It's a no-cost no brainer. It's the only chance we've had in years, we CPS parents, to register a significant complaint, with little jeopardy to ourselves.

But does CPS see it that way? This brings us to my second question.

CPS is responding all out of proportion on this one, folks. Barbara Byrd-Bennett has issued numerous and conflicting instructions and threats to parents and principals. Children will be permitted to opt out. No, wait, children in 3rd and 6th cannot opt out. All children should sit at their seats during testing, and all will receive the testing booklets, even those not taking it. No, wait, all children not taking it should bring a book to read. No, wait, all children not taking it should go into another classroom. Meanwhile the voices of the mayor and the Tribune and Barbara Byrd-Bennett get louder, screechier, and angrier by the day.

Why? This whole thing could have blown over much more quietly, but CPS has made a continued issue out of it and adopted an alternately shaming tone and angry tone, threatening crazy insane things like revoking schools' accreditation or decertifying teachers. What they have never understood is that these kinds of all-out-of-balance threats make people suspicious and angry, and bring folks in who never would have participated in a test opt-out. They call far more attention to the situation and leave us all scratching our heads as to what in the world is at stake here to make them respond this way.

No doubt. We've poked at a nerve here. We've hit something exposed. Both Rahm Emanuel and Barbara Byrd-Bennett are proponents of corporate education reform, the movement that has brought us, among other things, this tsunami of standardized assessments. Both are accountable to folks higher up the corporate chain to deliver Chicago safe and whole to the corporate ed enterprise. I get the feeling that while corporate ed reform is indeed a many-headed hydra, this test opt-out hints at what it will take to deal the hydra a death blow. Saying no to a standardized test, even a meaningless one, might lead us to say no to a whole lot more. And that, my friends, would cost a lot of folks an unimaginable lot of profit.

But it might enable us to reclaim our schools for our neighborhoods, our children, and real learning.

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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