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Pencils Down: Faced With Mass Closings, Chicago School Activists Mull a Testing Revolt

Rebecca Burns

Demonstrators protest in support of Seattle teachers boycott of the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials announced today that they are preparing to close 61 schools this year, mostly in majority black and Latino neighborhoods. The battle lines over one of the largest school shutdowns in U.S. history are drawn – and one of the key factors that determines where they fall, Chicago school activists emphasize, is the data from high stakes standardized tests. As Chicago teachers and school activists ramp up their efforts to stop closings, a campaign of student testing opt-outs could be one of the tactics they employ against corporate-backed education reforms.

Before this year, there was little precedent for such a move. But the question of teacher and student resistance to standardized testing has taken center stage following a successful testing boycott in Seattle. In January, teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School lit a spark in the tinderbox of teacher frustration when they announced that they would refuse to administer the district-mandated Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. Soon, the revolt spread to five other schools in the city. National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel has called the Seattle boycott a defining moment” for the teaching profession. Though Seattle’s superintendent threatened in February to suspend the boycotting teachers for 10 days without pay, they’ve thus far escaped disciplinary action by the school district, likely due to an outpouring of support nationwide. Now, Seattle teachers are gearing up to boycott the next round of the MAP in April — and taking nationwide the message that educators, students and parents must unite to beat back high-stakes testing.

That message found easy resonance this week in Chicago, where striking teachers with signs proclaiming Testing =/ Learning” filled the streets last fall. At a community forum on Tuesday night, visiting Garfield High history teacher Jesse Hagopian and Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis together made the case that standardized testing is a key element of the assault on public education.

What’s the purpose of standardized testing? It’s to rank and sort our children,” Lewis told the crowd. Test scores are used to rank Chicago schools academically, and those designated high performing” are exempt from closure. The CTU contends that high-stakes testing amplifies racial disparities in education. Standardized testing grew out of the American tradition of using quantitative attempts to measure intelligence’ as a pretext for racist and exclusionary policies,” it asserts in a recently-released position paper. 

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The union argues that time spent on testing preparation interferes with classroom learning, but Chicago teachers are particularly rankled by MAP because it factors heavily into their performance evaluations. MAP, a computerized test given multiple times a year by more than 5,000 school districts to track student growth is reading and math, is used widely in value-added” models of evaluation meant to measure teacher impact on student improvement. Teachers in Seattle and Chicago alike call this method pseudo-scientific;” tests like the MAP don’t follow classroom curriculum, but can nevertheless be used to punish teachers. A 2010 study from the U.S. Department of Education examining error rates in the use of student test score gains to evaluate teachers concluded, More than 90 percent of the variation in student gain scores is due to the variation in student-level factors that are not under control of the teachers.”

In February, the CTU announced that it had launched a campaign in support of local and nationwide efforts” to eliminate non-state-mandated tests such as the MAP. More Than a Score, a new coalition of teachers and parent groups that co-sponsored Tuesday’s forum, says it has gathered thousands of signatures on a petition against high stakes testing since February. The group is calling on the Chicago Board of Education to disclose the cost and purpose of each of the 22 tests currently administered in the school district. It’s also pushing for the elimination of standardized testing for children from pre-school through second grade. The Reader’s Ben Joravsky noted last year that Chicago kindergarteners now spend up to a third of their school year taking tests, a situation that More Than a Score intends to highlight by staging a play-in” with young students at the Board of Education on March 30.

Though dissent over standardized testing has been brewing across the country among teachers and some superintendents, this year appears to be the first time that educators have openly refused to follow testing edicts, the Christian Science Monitor reported in January. Jesse Hagopian, who travelled to Chicago to share lessons from the testing boycott, noted that Garfield High has a tradition of struggle” that has propelled teachers to take action (Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael spoke there in the 1960s, a legacy that has left an impact on the black student union that Hagopian advises). But Garfield also faces the same challenges as other schools, he emphasized, and the testing boycott there started out small before it began to spread.

Earlier this year, Hagopian, who is also a teachers union representative, got a call from a teacher who was considering not administering MAP. A few faculty members began holding meetings on the idea, and realized that one teacher’s stand wouldn’t be enough. Courageous as that would be, they could target one teacher,” he said. But soon we realized every teacher in the school already thought this test was a waste of time.”

After Garfield High teachers announced their boycott, the school’s Parent Teacher Association voted to support them, undercutting claims that teachers were acting contrary to students’ best interests. Next, following deadlocked talks with teachers, Seattle Superintendent Jose Banda announced that the MAP test would continue as planned, given by school administrators. That was when the students stood up and started to fight for themselves,” said Hagopian. Students have the right to opt out of MAP with parent permission, and less than one-fourth of the ninth graders who were scheduled to take the test at Garfield High did so, according to the Seattle Times. 

Could Chicago schools be next to join the boycott? I think you take baby steps towards these things,” parent Julie Fain, who has helped spearhead petition-gathering at schools with More Than a Score, told In These Times. But as the battle to keep neighborhood schools open heats up, she noted, We want to remind people that the closings depend on test scores.” 

Student and parent anti-testing efforts, which Hagopian credits as key in bolstering Seattle teachers’ rebellion, are already picking up in Chicago. Earlier this month, a group of students at Gage Park High School staged a boycott of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), another optional test, to protest two recent incidences of alleged sexual assault at the school. Gage Park High senior Lesley Leon said that school administrators have continued pressuring students to take high-stakes tests, which they are unable to focus on, rather than opening a dialogue on student safety. Young Chicago Authors, a youth writers’ workshop, is planning meetings this month to help proliferate student test boycotts.

Daisy Mass, an eighth grader in Chicago Public Schools who opted out of the MAP test after attending meetings on school closings with her mother, believes that more students would opt out of testing if they knew they had the right to. Everyone would jump at the chance not to take this test,” she told In These Times, It doesn’t factor into your grade, so there’s no incentive to do well, but it’s still stressful and makes you feel awful.”

Garfield teachers have also met with education justice advocates in Portland, where students last month launched their own opt-out campaign. Curbing the use of high-stakes testing is likely to prove an uphill battle, however: Standardized testing was estimated to be a $2.7 billion industry in 2009. In Seattle, former superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson acquired the MAP test for $4 million while she sat on the board of the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), which sells the MAP. A 2011 state audit determined that not disclosing this information represented an ethics violation, but the school system has continued use of the test.

Still, Hagopian is hopeful that the fight to Scrap the MAP” can lead to a broader struggle against norm-reference testing” that disadvantages minority and special education students. These tests do measure something,” he said. What they measure is your zip code and how many books you have in your house.” Seattle teachers have formed a citywide committee of boycotting schools, he told In These Times, and hope ultimately to pressure the school district to cancel its contract with the NWEA, which must be renewed this year.

The possibilities for building broader solidarity around this issue are many, be believes: Garfield can be the first step in a process where students, teachers and parents unite to insist that our kids are more than a score.”

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Rebecca Burns is an In These Times contributing editor and award-winning investigative reporter. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, the Chicago Reader, ProPublica, The Intercept, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter @rejburns.

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