A Boycott Today Keeps the Testing at Bay

A model Chicago alliance of teachers, students and parents is leading the way in a nationwide testing refusal movement

Yana Kunichoff May 17, 2014

Teacher Sarah Chambers speaks during the "Ice the ISAT" rally at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy on Feb. 28 in Chicago. (Photo courtesy of Bob Simpson)

In school years past, the advent of spring has meant that it’s time for Chica­go ele­men­tary school stu­dents to sit through two weeks of state-man­dat­ed stan­dard­ized test­ing. But this March, some­thing dif­fer­ent hap­pened: Thanks to the efforts of a group of pro-pub­lic edu­ca­tion, anti-test­ing activists, a boy­cott of the Illi­nois Stan­dards Achieve­ment Test (ISAT) took hold across the city.

Chicago teachers say they believe their boycott was the right thing to do—but they faced a significant backlash for their actions.

More Than a Score, a coali­tion of par­ents, stu­dents and teach­ers orga­niz­ing against test­ing, has long urged par­ents to take advan­tage of their rights to opt chil­dren out of unnec­es­sary stan­dard­ized tests. The group says that by the time test­ing day rolled around this year, par­ents in more than 60 schools sent in let­ters with­draw­ing their chil­dren from par­tic­i­pa­tion in the exam. Their rea­sons? The numer­ous tests cause undue stress on stu­dents and are an inac­cu­rate and unfair form of eval­u­a­tion. This is typ­i­cal of the mount­ing oppo­si­tion to the explo­sion over the past decade of what’s known as high-stakes test­ing”— tests that can deter­mine such impor­tant deci­sions as whether a stu­dent will pass to the next grade.

But what made nation­al head­lines was the refusal of teach­ers at two Chica­go pub­lic schools to admin­is­ter the ISAT. They stood firm in spite of threats from admin­is­tra­tors that they could lose their licens­es or face oth­er dis­ci­pli­nary action. Along with their desire to sup­port par­ents and stu­dents opt­ing out, the teach­ers had their own rea­sons to oppose the tests. A cen­tral griev­ance dur­ing the teach­ers strike in Sep­tem­ber 2012 was the use of test scores to eval­u­ate teach­ers, regard­less of whether their stu­dents faced exter­nal obsta­cles to scor­ing well (such as lan­guage bar­ri­ers). Edu­ca­tors were also adamant that the ISAT took away valu­able teach­ing time.

The test­ing boy­cott took off Feb­ru­ary 25 when, amid news reports high­light­ing grow­ing inter­est from par­ents in opt­ing out, teach­ers at Maria Saucedo

Scholas­tic Acad­e­my vot­ed unan­i­mous­ly not to admin­is­ter the ISAT. By test­ing week, a major­i­ty of teach­ers at anoth­er school, Thomas Drum­mond Ele­men­tary, had also vot­ed against admin­is­ter­ing the test.

With their refusal, Chica­go teach­ers fol­lowed in the foot­steps of their coun­ter­parts at Seattle’s Garfield High School, who led a first-of-it-kind boy­cott of the Mea­sures of Aca­d­e­m­ic Progress (MAP) exam last year. These actions have lent momen­tum to a nation­wide wave of oppo­si­tion to stan­dard­ized testing.

On April 12, for exam­ple, a major­i­ty of teach­ers in the Col­orado Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion union vot­ed dur­ing their annu­al meet­ing in favor of a mora­to­ri­um on high-stakes test­ing. Anger against test­ing has also been bub­bling over in New York State, where anti-test­ing groups say that more than 34,000 stu­dents have thus far opt­ed out of tak­ing this year’s Eng­lish Lan­guage Arts assess­ment (ELA) test, giv­en to grades three through eight under the new Com­mon Core Learn­ing Stan­dards. On April 4, hun­dreds of par­ents, stu­dents and teach­ers marched in Brook­lyn against the ELA.

Julie Woeste­hoff, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Par­ents Unit­ed for Respon­si­ble Edu­ca­tion, a Chica­go-based par­ent group, says that such actions are being dri­ven by frus­tra­tion with the mul­ti­ply­ing num­bers of tests stu­dents are required to take. The test­ing has real­ly explod­ed. There is the phase-out of old tests, the phase-in of new tests,” she says. You even give [stu­dents] pre-tests to see how they will do on the test.”

Indeed, in Flori­da, often con­sid­ered a mod­el for oth­er states’ test­ing regimes, school dis­tricts are required to admin­is­ter as many as 62 tests per year to their stu­dents. The growth of test­ing impacts younger stu­dents as well — kinder­garten­ers in some states have been expect­ed to take mul­ti­ple-choice tests, though teach­ers con­tend they bare­ly have the coor­di­na­tion skills to hold a pencil.

Test­ing is no longer used sim­ply to eval­u­ate stu­dents either: The edu­ca­tion reform move­ment that has swept through America’s school sys­tem empha­sizes the valid­i­ty of test­ing to assess teach­ers, schools and even dis­tricts. High test scores, crit­ics say, cor­re­late more close­ly with high­er lev­els of school resources than any oth­er fac­tor, but low scores nev­er­the­less come with a bevy of con­se­quences, often impact­ing stu­dents of col­or attend­ing cash-strapped pub­lic schools most acutely.

In Chica­go, New York and New Orleans, test scores have been used to jus­ti­fy school clo­sures and turn­arounds. And because school fund­ing often depends in part on test results, par­tic­u­lar­ly under No Child Left Behind rules, it can result in fur­ther under-resourced schools or school districts.

Chica­go teach­ers say they believe their boy­cott was the right thing to do — but they faced a sig­nif­i­cant back­lash for their actions. The school dis­trict respond­ed with a flur­ry of emails and robo­calls to par­ents, list­ing the virtues of the ISAT. Sauce­do teach­ers also received emails from their prin­ci­pal and Chica­go Pub­lic Schools CEO Bar­bara Byrd-Ben­nett warn­ing they would be dis­ci­plined” and could have their teach­ing licens­es revoked. 

Whether Chica­go teach­ers will actu­al­ly face reprisals for their actions is still uncer­tain. CPS offi­cials have said they are inves­ti­gat­ing teacher mis­con­duct” in the lead-up to the ISAT boy­cott as well as on the test­ing days, and have inter­viewed teach­ers at both Sauce­do and Drum­mond. Par­ents from Drum­mond had their own alle­ga­tions of mis­con­duct against CPS lawyers, who they say inter­viewed stu­dents with­out parental approval.

CPS told In These Times they were not able to give any details of the ongo­ing investigation.

Many eyes nation­wide will be watch­ing to see how the Chica­go teach­ers weath­er the blow­back, as the bat­tle over test­ing appears poised to esca­late. The nation­wide tran­si­tion to Com­mon Core State Stan­dards, a set of new edu­ca­tion stan­dards pio­neered by the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion and expect­ed to be in place in most states at the start of the next school year, is like­ly to fur­ther fuel the test­ing explo­sion, says PURE’s Woeste­hoff. Com­mon Core will impose new assess­ments with high­er stan­dards, increas­ing pres­sure on stu­dents and teach­ers, she says.

While it may look like a big tent is form­ing against Com­mon Core — con­ser­v­a­tive talk shows hosts such as Glenn Beck, along with leg­is­la­tors in red states have pushed back against the edu­ca­tion­al bench­marks set rigid­ly at the fed­er­al lev­el — Woeste­hoff sees Chicago’s oppo­si­tion move­ment as not pri­mar­i­ly tar­get­ing Com­mon Core, but rather the over­all test­ing régime.

Sarah Cham­bers, a boy­cotting teacher and a leader in the Chica­go Teach­ers Union, is con­fi­dent that the test­ing refusal move­ment is gain­ing speed” nation­wide. I ful­ly believe in the upcom­ing years there are going to be mas­sive boy­cotts of test­ing around the coun­try,” she says.

Yana Kuni­choff is a Chica­go-based inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and doc­u­men­tary pro­duc­er. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Pacif­ic Stan­dard and the Chica­go Read­er, among oth­ers. She can be reached at yanaku­ni­choff at gmail​.com.
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