A Chicago Teacher Explains How Her School Fought Back Against Standardized Testing—And Won

Sarah Chambers

A Chicago elementary school teachers explains how parents and teachers organized a successful standardized testing boycott. (Bill Chambers / Facebook)

Excerpted from More Than a Score, out now from Haymarket Books.

It was testing day. I had just read the directions, which instructed my students to fill in the bubble of the letter that corresponds to the best answer choice and the students had dutifully began reading passages and darkly shading bubbles with their number-two pencils.

All the students had begun except for one of my eleven-year-old boys at the end of the row of desks, who had stalled and was slouched over his test booklet. I watched as he plucked out his black eyelashes one by one, agonizing over a standardized test that would determine, in part, my efficacy as teacher and contribute to the overall rating of our school.

In that moment, I thought to myself, This over-testing is child abuse.” I cannot inflict this mental and emotional harm on one more student. That’s when the word boycott” first flashed across my mind.

This is the story of how an emotion became a movement in which the parents, students, and teachers of Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy organized to reclaim the classroom and demand that students are more than a test score.

Boycotts do not just happen — they are organized. The testing boycott at my school was strategically planned with a multifaceted approach that included teacher, parent and student support. Although the planning and implementation of this strategy occurred in a one-month span, the agitation around over-testing and employee power in the school organizational structure was built over a couple of years.

Saucedo Academy is a large public elementary school on the southwest side of Chicago, with a dense immigrant population and a high percentage of students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. Because Saucedo is an academy, our students must apply and are accepted through a lottery system. Saucedo is a Level 1 school with some of the highest test scores in the area. The intention of this boycott was not to remove tests that lowered our school’s level,” but was instead motivated by much larger goals.

Over the past several years, handfuls of parents across the city had already opted their students out of various assessments by writing letters and meeting with their children’s principals. Chicago-based More Than a Score is one parent advocacy group spreading the opt-out gospel,” and began by hosting forums with parents addressing the problems with high-stakes standardized assessments and explaining how to opt out one’s child from a standardized test. Several colleagues and I began going to their forums to learn how to share the concept of opting out with more parents.

Previously within the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) and the social justice caucus within the union, CORE (Caucus of Rank and File Educators), we had discussed the many ways over-testing was damaging education but hadn’t spoken of concrete steps and strategies to combat these tests as teachers. We brought More Than a Score’s fliers on over-testing and opt-out letter templates to CORE’s monthly meeting. CORE’s testing committee also created a boycott checklist/​timeline that included the steps necessary to lead to a successful boycott and massive opt-out of a test (see the checklist/​timeline on the following page).

During this CORE meeting, the members of the CORE testing committee presented a strategy to spread the opt-out movement to schools throughout the city. We explained that for a school to organize for a teacher boycott, they must simultaneously organize a school-wide student opt-out campaign. CORE members brought thousands of letters to their own schools and nearby schools that had a growing testing resistance movement.

At Saucedo Academy, we hosted our own information sessions for parents on high-stakes testing and how to opt their children out before passing out the opt-out information. The parents were shocked by the number of tests and the amount of instructional time lost, which most schools rarely publicize.

Parents asked many questions and were disturbed to learn the spring 2014 Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), which would take away one to two weeks of instruction time, was already being phased out and was no longer even tied to the same high stakes of promotion and school leveling for which it had been originally created. Families quickly embraced the idea of opting out of this exam.

The most effective strategy for educating parents on an issue is to have other parents, rather than teachers, discuss with them. Parents place the greatest trust in other parents, especially parent leaders, because they know that they have the same interests in mind. At our information session, we identified a number of parent leaders who were especially eager to take on the ISAT. Before long, these parents were leading their own information sessions.

Soon, students began to lead meetings as well, educating their parents and peers about high-stakes testing and the opt-out process. We continued to have these sessions four to five times at various locations before and during the boycott. These sessions not only helped build toward the boycott but also continued through the boycott itself, helping to correct misinformation.

In addition to group information sessions, one-on-one meetings were important for building support around the idea of a boycott with faculty. During these meetings, I spoke with teachers before and after school, during lunch and in passing about the opt-out movement nationally and locally, as well as the big picture implications” of over-testing, such as the firing/​layoffs of quality experienced teachers, public school closures, and the agenda to privatize our school system. Sprinkled in these discussions was the word boycott.”

Up to this point, it was still too early to fully discuss a boycott of a test, but I wanted to plant the seed in people’s minds, especially among some of the most respected teacher-leaders in the school. Through our staffwide personal email listserv, I sent articles on over-testing and issues with the Common Core State Standards and dates of informational sessions and panels led by organizations, such as More Than a Score, against excessive testing and guided parents and teachers on how to opt out children.

In Chicago, unlike every other school district but one in Illinois, the Board of Education is appointed by our mayor instead of being democratically elected by the residents of the district. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s board of education has controlled the schools with an iron fist, laying off experienced teachers, slashing budgets and enforcing strict discipline on teachers. Because of these conditions, I knew that we had to have a tight strategy to opt out as many students as possible in a short period of time if we were going to be able to challenge the mayor’s education policy.

Two weeks before the ISAT was supposed to be administered, I prepared a union meeting at Saucedo to launch a massive opt-out campaign. We made copies of the opt-out flyer and template for each Saucedo student from third through eighth grade. I knew the stakes were high for this effort — if CPS got wind of such a massive opt-out operation, they would try to swiftly shut down all opt outs at our school and across the city.

At the union meeting, we had a discussion about the implications and logistics of a massive schoolwide opt-out of the ISAT exam. One of the major obstacles to disseminating information about opting out is political. We took precautions to ensure that no teacher was passing out political materials” while on the clock. We were all to pass out the opt-out fliers and templates before or after school by picking up our class five minutes early or dropping them off five minutes late. The teachers told their students to return the opt-out letters to their homeroom teachers rather than to the administration so that the administration wouldn’t catch wind of the campaign.

With the signed letters in their hands, teachers could make copies and turn them all in on the same day. This also protected the student in case the letter happened to be lost” by administration.

Once the students received the letter templates, opting out spread like wildfire.

Almost the entire student body did not want to take this tedious standardized test, so they urged their parents to opt them out. Within a week, we had around 50 percent of the students at our own school opting out of the ISAT exam. We set a date to turn all the opt-out letters in to the counselors. By then, the administration at Saucedo already knew about it. At that point, they were not opposed to students opting out because the CPS central office hadn’t threatened their careers and force-fed them lies about loss of school funding.

A week before the test, over half of our students were opted out of the ISAT. This was a great start, but at this point the other half of the school was still officially required to take the test. The missing opt-out forms were unsigned in part because many parents working multiple jobs couldn’t attend an informational session and, therefore, were probably wary of signing the opt-out papers for a test that their children had taken for years.

Because these students did not have signed forms to opt out of the ISAT, teacher leaders and I began to talk to teams more seriously about boycotting the administration of the exam so that not a single student at our school would be subjected to the test. In our professional opinions, the ISAT would provide us with no information that would inform our instruction, robbed our students of two weeks of instructional time, and belittled the intellects of our students, whose multifaceted skills cannot be measured by the process of eliminating wrong answer choices.

We also believed that beyond Saucedo, the test was not useful for students at any school, and we knew that without the attention to the abuses of high-stakes testing a teacher boycott would generate, the opt-out movement would fail to spread to other schools.

The only way to launch this dialogue against over-testing and to strike a blow against the privatization agenda was to boycott the test. And that is exactly what we did.

On Tuesday, the week before the ISAT exam, a core group of Saucedo teachers who wanted to organize the boycott scheduled an important union meeting for Saucedo teachers.” We chose a Tuesday because fewer people take off after school on Tuesdays and we had four to five days before the test was scheduled for the boycott to snowball to other schools.

The key to having an effective boycott vote is to ensure that all staff in the testing grades actually attend the union meeting, which is a serious hurdle for many schools. The Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012 taught me that to achieve 100 percent attendance at a meeting of overworked educators, it helps to have multiple forms of advertising and announcements — and serve food. We advertised the union meeting through our whole staff email listserv, posted signs on the punch-out clock, placed notes in everyone’s mailboxes, and called all the teachers through our staff phone tree. With the support of our UNITE HERE! union brothers and sisters working in the cafeteria, we bought breakfast for everyone.

At the union meeting, we had everyone sign in so we could easily see if there were missing staff. Team members found others not in attendance and brought them to the meeting. The meeting began with teachers and CTU organizers discussing the boycott — both the benefits and the possibility of severe consequences such as discipline or termination. We had a rich discussion of the pros and cons among the teachers right up until the vote.

Before the boycott vote, we explained the paper ballot we would be using, with its three options: 1) Yes, I will teach rather than give the ISAT; 2) Yes, I will teach rather than give the ISAT if 75 percent of the staff votes yes; or 3) No, I will give the ISAT. Each staff member voted individually and submitted his or her ballot anonymously. We counted the ballots in front of the staff and 100 percent of the ballots were for boycotting the test!

The results blew me away. The room exploded with excitement and cheers. Although we had done so much to organize for this moment, I had not known the amount of courage that we would find in that room. The Saucedo staff had pledged to refuse to inflict harm on their students from these draconian tests.

Right after the meeting, my heart was pounding with excitement and nervousness anticipating the weeks to come. I immediately contacted the CORE communications team to set up a press conference with a diverse group of teachers, students, and parents. After school, teachers, parents, and students converged for the press conference. Surprisingly the mainstream media, which was often not in support of teachers or the union, allowed us to share our story without any negative spin. It was difficult for them not to support the boycott when teachers, parents, and students were all in agreement that students should be learning, not being over-tested. From then on we were bombarded by the media almost every day — before and after school and during our lunch breaks — sharing our stories of resistance and hope for better assessments.

The day after our announcement of the ISAT boycott, there was a complete shift in the administration’s attitude toward the teachers and the opt-out movement. Suddenly, they did not support students opting out nor did they support the teachers’ stand. CPS officials met with administration and threatened their careers unless they fixed” the situation. The CPS central office sent an email to all employees stating that we would be disciplined, fired or possibly lose our teaching licenses for our actions if we went ahead with the boycott. We had expected threats of termination but not the extreme threat of removing our teaching licenses.

The threats became more real at Saucedo when members of the administration went to every teacher one by one when they were alone in their rooms and told us, You will lose your job if you boycott,” You will be replaced,” or You will be disciplined.” Due to this intense pressure, we held meetings almost every day with multiple people from the union offices, such as CTU lawyers, organizers, the head of the grievance department, our field representative, the head of staff, and the officers, including CTU president Karen Lewis.

Not content with bullying teachers, CPS soon began attacking our parents.

Administration members called parents every day, hosted what we called mis-information” sessions, held one-on-one conferences with parents, and sent home letters to convince parents to opt their child back in to take the ISAT. The administration regurgitated lies that CPS fed them about our school losing funding, which could lead to losing our renowned band program.

We combated these scare tactics by having parents, retirees, and other supporters pass out daily fliers with the correct information: ISAT scores are not connected to funding, Title 1 funding is not connected to ISAT scores, our music program is not connected to ISAT scores, ISAT has no bearing on selective enrollment entry, leveling of the school, or student grade promotion.

Parents and teachers weren’t the only ones under siege; students were also bombarded. The CPS central office announced that all students, whether they were opted out or not, must be given the test booklet. These actions were intended to get students to reverse their (or their family’s) decision and take the test.

To counteract these absurd rules, supporters passed out students, know your rights” cards that explained their right to refuse the exam. These cards proved to be extremely effective.

Some students in rooms that had all opted out were told, Your parents changed their minds, they opted you back in. You need to take the exam.” Students yelled back at administration, That’s not true! He’s lying,” or We refuse!” Students were the victors since the administration could not force children to take the test.

Yet it was not all victories, and some battles were lost in the over-testing war. Due to the scare tactics of CPS and the administration, some teachers overturned their decision to boycott the test. Every day leading up to the test, we utilized our phone tree to let teachers voice their concerns, support them with expressions of solidarity, and gauge their levels of support for the boycott.

During these calls, we ranked boycotters from low to moderate to strong levels of support for the boycott. We split the list of low-to-moderate boycotters among union officers and leaders to call for one-on-one conversations. Many had long discussions with teachers, calming their concerns and expressing the significance of their actions.

The day before the ISAT was to be administered, we held a final boycott count by calling each teacher to ask them directly if they still chose to teach rather than give the test. A number of teachers dropped out, but twenty-five stayed strong. A group of non-tenured teachers — the most vulnerable educators among us, who could be terminated without cause — met with administration and stated that they refused to give the test to students who had opted out but would give the test to non-opt-out students. The administration agreed to their demands. This was a moment of extreme bravery for our nontenure teachers because they could be non-renewed” with the click of a button and risked losing their jobs the following year.

Our movement received the joyous news the week before the ISATs that another school, Drummond Thomas Montessori School, had announced their own boycott of the ISAT. They had a handful of boycotting teachers and a large percentage of students opted out of the ISAT.

It’s important to note that CPS’s oppressive tactics to opt in students at my school were not applied at Drummond. Drummond has a large percentage of white, middle- to upperclass families. CPS’s opt-in campaigns were only utilized in schools with high populations of brown or black students. We had seen these racist attacks occur in the past when 90 percent of the school closings and actions were in schools with a majority black population.

Although Drummond students were not harassed to opt back in to take the ISAT, CPS had other severe and reactionary actions for Drummond. CPS sent legal investigators to Drummond to interrogate children as young as eight years old to manipulative them into telling on” their teachers so CPS could discipline them in the future. Enraged Drummond parents, many of them lawyers themselves, stormed the school’s office to stop the investigations, declaring the illegality of interrogating their children without parental consent.

After hearing about Drummond’s interrogations in the media, the Saucedo staff prepared for interrogations. The minute we found out that interrogations of students and teachers were taking place at our own school, we contacted parents by phone, mass text and email. Parents flooded the phone lines and stormed the office, demanding that the school not interrogate their children. Student interrogations ended as quickly as they had begun, but intensive teacher interrogations continued for the rest of the day.

The interrogators tried to scare teachers into naming other teachers leading the opt-out movement. They asked one of my colleagues, Was this led by a Ms. Lambers [meaning Ms. Chambers, my name]?” They used this strategy to get teachers to correct the absurd name they created, and say that Ms. Chambers” led the campaign. This malicious treatment of staff continued during ISAT week and was more than we could have ever anticipated.

Walking into Saucedo on the first day of testing reminded me of the scenes from Little Rock, Arkansas, during integration battles. There was security everywhere and unknown individuals from CPS central and network offices. They were extremely rude to teachers, students, and administration, often yelling at them and slamming doors.

During the ISAT days, teachers were given a sheet with rooms listed as opt-out rooms and testing rooms with teachers’ or staff members’ names attached to a room number. Many of the boycotting teachers did not have their names attached to any room and were not given directions about what their duties were supposed to be. Many of the boycotting teachers had a majority or 100 percent of their students opted out, yet CPS did not allow them to teach their own students during testing time. CPS staffers monitored many of the opt-out rooms and had the students sit silently for hours, not providing any instruction. CPS wanted to further demoralize boycotters and send a message that students who do not take the test cannot receive more instruction.

On the first day of testing, CPS even refused to give breakfast to many of the students in opt-out rooms. After a media blitz on this inhumane treatment, they provided breakfast to the students, but some students did not have utensils and had to eat with their hands. Other students were packed in rooms with between fifty to sixty other students and were forced to eat on the floor due to the lack of chairs and desks.

This abuse was not only forced upon general education students but also on students with disabilities. I am a special education teacher and all of my students opted out. I was only allowed to be with two of my students with cognitive delays; the rest of my students were placed in large classrooms with teachers without special education certification.

After a couple days, they scheduled one of my Spanish-speaking students with a cognitive delay to be relocated to a room with a teacher who was not certified to provide specialized services and did not speak any Spanish. Furious, I buzzed the office and blurted out, My student is not with me and has pullout special education minutes. He is currently not being provided his pullout minutes, which are in his legal individualized education plan. His mother will not be happy when she hears this. I strongly recommend you return him to my classroom immediately.”

Within minutes, he was returned to my classroom, where I was able to teach him for the entirety of the testing weeks. In my own classroom during the boycott, I immediately felt a sense of freedom in my instruction and curriculum. I felt like I could fully teach in a way that I was passionate about. My shackles were off. They had already threatened to remove my teaching license, what more could they do to me?

Where teachers had opt-out classrooms, they told me, they taught wonderful lessons of other resisters and activists in history, such as Gandhi and Rosa Parks. The students related these activists’ civil disobedience to our act of civil disobedience in boycotting the test. These students were engaged in learning instead of stressing over a standardized exam.

During this time, the support from around the country also kept our spirits high. For multiple days throughout the boycott, we received lunch and desserts with letters of support from across the city — from parents, teachers and others in solidarity with our boycott. Each boycotting teacher received a vase with a note thanking us and telling us to stay strong. Every single day, for weeks, we received letters, union resolutions, blog posts, and media support from all over the world, including a letter from Diane Ravitch, an all-staff picture from Garfield High School in Seattle, which had led a successful boycott of their own against the MAP test, holding a sign that read Ice the ISAT!” and a resolution of support by the entire Chicago Federation of Labor. This ubiquitous support kept us strong until the end.

Largely because of the overwhelming solidarity, no disciplinary measures have been taken against any of the boycotting teachers. Yet while we stayed strong, CPS’s threats prevented more schools from joining the ISAT boycott.

Our act of civil disobedience did not spread to schools other than Drummond, but through our organizing efforts and press conferences, our message spread throughout the nation, our story even reaching National Public Radio and the Wall Street Journal. Our actions have spurred a significant number of discussions around Chicago and the nation about the detrimental effects of over-testing our students.

These boycotts and the opt-out movement will only spread in the coming years. This year, I did not have to see a student pull out his eyelashes, anguished with the burden of a high-stakes exam. This is the first year that a student did not cry in my class from the stress of standardized testing.

To all the teachers reading this, you won’t truly feel free as an educator until you stand up unconditionally for your students and boycott the test.

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Sarah Chambers is a special education teacher at Saucedo Elementary School in Chicago.
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