Wednesday morning, when most public-school 11th graders in Chicago were preparing to take the state-mandated Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE), nearly 100 students left high schools across the city in protest. Boycotting students met up with parents and allies downtown to rally in front of the Chicago Public Schools headquarters in defiance of what they call Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “misguided agenda.”
“We are over-tested, under-resourced, and fed up,” Brian Stirgus, a senior at Paul Robeson High School, told the crowd. The students object to both the prevalence of high-stakes standardized testing and the scheduled closure of 54 Chicago grammar schools, which the students see as part of the same threat to their education and their communities.
Stirgus, a spokesperson for new group Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools (CSOSOS), said that the closure of schools in predominantly black and Latino communities is “racist,” and that the use of high-stakes tests to evaluate the schools is “foolish.” Students are determined to save their schools, he emphasized, and are willing to take measures like Chicago’s mass walkout in 1963, when more than 200,000 students boycotted classes in protest of inequality in the city’s public schools.
In the afternoon, students gathered in front of Benjamin Banneker Elementary to hold a “speak out” and link arms in a symbolic blockade in front of the school. Banneker was in session Wednesday but will not be opening for a new school year in September if CPS plans do not change.
CSOSOS, along with student group Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), organized the boycott in solidarity with student groups from across the country that are beginning to take aim at excessive standardized testing. Earlier this year, Seattle’s Garfield High School gained national attention when teachers launched a boycott of the district-mandated Measures of Academic Progress test. The boycott won support from Seattle parents and students, and helped inspire a wave of anti-testing actions across the country. Timothy Anderson, an organizer with VOYCE and junior at Gage Park, told In These Times that Chicago students have been in contact with students from Newark, NJ; Portland, OR; Providence, RI; Philadelphia, PA — where similar actions have recently taken place or are being planned. Chicago student organizers are trying to figure out how teachers, parents, and students can work together on a bigger fightback against testing and school closings. “We’re still planning,” said Anderson, “nothing’s official.”
Parents and teachers were also at the two actions, if only on the sidelines. “We were very excited when we found out [about the walk-out],” said Anne Carlson. Carlson is CPS parent as well as a teacher and a Chicago Teachers Union delegate at Drummond Elementary. She says the student-led walk-out came as a pleasant surprise. “Students are connecting the dots themselves” between high-stakes testing and school closures, she notes. It’s part of the same agenda to privatize Chicago schools, and schools nationally, she believes, because “the tests are what is determining which schools they close.” According to WBEZ, CPS uses a “complicated formula” to judge schools’ performance, but “more than half of the possible points are based on parts of the Prairie State Achievement Exam.”
CPS students in their junior year are required to take the PSAE in order to move on to the next grade level, but there is a make-up day in May for students who miss the test. Since students take the ACT test during the first day of the two-day testing period, organizers called for a boycott on the second day of testing to avoid jeopardizing students’ chances during the college admissions process. Members of VOYCE who left Gage Park High School Wednesday morning reported that teachers tried to interfere with the boycott by suggesting that students’ ACT scores would be invalidated if they refused to take the PSAE. The threat turned a few students around, but most believed it to be unfounded. Kamaal, a student who declined to give his last name, told In These Times that his parents supported his choice to join the boycott, and he does not believe that the school will punish him and his fellow students. For him, the most important thing is opposing school closings. “We’re trying to do as much as we can,” he said. “The budget is being cut and a lot of violence is going to happen.”