Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=221572
Story Retrieval Date: 12/6/2013 12:18:31 PM CST
When Daisy Maass and her parents informed her teachers that she would be opting out of two district-mandated tests starting in the winter of the 2012-2013 school year, she was told that students couldn’t opt out of standardized tests.
“It’s more of a new concept to be able to opt out of them,” said Daisy, an eighth-grader at Skinner West Classical Fine Arts and Technology School in the West Loop. “All of the teachers, even the union rep, at my school thought you’re not allowed to do that.”
She was opted out of the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, test and the Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago test.
Opting students out of standardized testing in Chicago had been relatively unknown prior to this past fall when Raise Your Hand, a Chicago parent organization, and FairTest, or the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, began holding forums and meetings explaining to parents that it is a possibility.
“I think it’s fairly new that this amount of testing is being pushed on kids,” said Julie Fain, a parent of a kindergartner and fourth-grader at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Wicker Park, who has opted her children out of testing. “I think that they’re using kids to provide data to evaluate teachers and schools and principals. I don’t think that our kids should be used in that way.”
An increasing number of parents, like Fain, have become aware over the past school year that opting out of standardized testing is possible, and more parents have decided to withdraw students from tests that they consider inappropriate.
Usage of tests questioned
Fain is concerned that standardized testing is being used inappropriately to evaluate teachers and principals, sort students, and open or close schools.
“I think that if you’re going to give the mass assessments, the assessments need to be for their benefit, not for the benefit of the adults in the system,” Fain said.
The process of evaluating teachers, principals and schools has a negative impact on the curriculum in public schools, according to Isabel Nunez, associate professor for the Center for Policy Studies and Social Justice at Concordia University Chicago.
“I see the curriculum narrowing,” Nunez said. “All teachers are feeling pressured. We’re not sophisticated enough to use scores this way.”
Daisy said that she agrees that the curriculum has narrowed when they spend time prepping for the reading MAP test.
“We’re losing this concept of really imaginative language and really great reading,” the 13-year-old said. “Reading the stuff that they give you on the reading MAP test is like staring at a brick wall. I think you should enjoy having to take tests, being able to show what you know.”
Cassie Creswell, a parent of a first-grader at Goethe Elementary in Logan Square, who has opted her child out of testing, said: “The point of all of these tests is to inevitably make public schools look worse. There are many, many other ways to get a picture of those things that are much more accurate.”
Her daughter was in kindergarten when Creswell said she realized that standardized testing was inappropriate for her child’s age. She said the teacher would have her daughter read to the other students during one-on-one testing.
“There’s so much testing going on that it was helpful to have a kindergartener to keep the rest of the class occupied,” Creswell said. “That stuff just doesn’t seem developmentally appropriate for that age.”
Nunez, who is affiliated with CReATE the network of researchers on transformative education, said that testing children in early childhood years puts “inappropriate levels of pressure” on them.
“It can make learning unpleasant and have ramifications,” Nunez said. “If learning isn’t fun, children’s future academic achievement is negatively impacted.”
Defense for testing use
Prior to the 2012-2013 school year, opting out of standardized testing was done by individual parents like Sharon Schmidt who had contacted Chicago Public Schools personally in 2010 and received a letter that confirmed that she would be able to opt her child out of testing.
CPS officials never released a public statement to this effect that it was possible to opt out of testing, but they respond to requests for information from parents.
“There is no ‘opt out’ policy,” said a CPS official in the communications department. “These decisions should be made at the school level between principal and parents-- as it relates to a particular child's situation.”
The process involves writing a letter to the principal of that school requesting that a student not be given specific tests, according to parents who have withdrawn their children from standardized testing.
CPS only allows parents to opt out of local or district-mandated and optional tests, which do not include state-mandated tests such as the Illinois Standard Achievement Test.
“We encourage parents to fully understand the purpose of each assessment,” the CPS official said, “and the role that it plays in helping teachers and principals provide targeted academic supports to each student based on their individual needs.”
According to Miriam Sherin, director of undergraduate education at Northwestern University, “The tests are intended to provide information, designed to measure student achievement in different areas and to compare across schools in districts and states.”
Sherin said that in evaluating teachers, standardized tests are not being used for what they were created for.
“When standardized tests are used to evaluate teachers, teachers may make high student test scores a primary goal of instruction, taking away from other important instructional topics,” she said. “Thus when this becomes a focus, less time is spent in school on more conceptual issues and topics that cut across several topics and domains.”
However, Sherin, a professor of Learning Sciences, still considers standardized testing a necessary part of assessment.
“I think there still is a role for standardized testing in the U.S.,” she said, “It can certainly be helpful as one measure of student achievement and as a means of comparison among student achievement across different schools and states.”
Sherin said that standardized testing is becoming better with the implementation of Common Core State Standards because the test will emphasize reasoning and conceptual understanding.
Beginning in 2010, Common Core was designed to provide the states that opted in with a clear set of standards for grades kindergarten through 12th grade.
However, parents across the country remain unconvinced that standardized testing has a purpose in their children’s education.
National support for testing reform
Students in New York held a statewide boycott of a state-mandated test in April with 300 students in the village of Rockville Centre, Long Island, refusing to take the test, and in March parents in Snohomish, Wash., boycotted the Measurements of Student Progress test.
Teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School, the largest high school in the city, held a boycott that began in December against the MAP test that gained national support. They continued the boycott through spring testing.
“Combined with other things in the news about testing, all of these things are undermining the legitimacy of high stakes testing,” said Robert Schaeffer, a media contact at FairTest. “If that is what they think is best for their child, that’s what they should do. It delivers a very strong message of no more. Enough is enough, it’s hurting students.”
The Chicago movement against high-stakes standardized testing mirrors the national movement. On April 24, dozens of students walked out of a mandatory state test, the Prairie State Achievement Examination, to boycott in front of CPS. This was organized by two student groups: Voices of Youth and Chicago Students Organizing to Save our Schools.
On April 17, parents and their children occupied the hallway of CPS headquarters for an event called Play In to demand more recess and less testing for early childhood years.
Chicago parents have also started a Facebook page called Opt Out Chicago, which has 156 members.
“The goals are to force policymakers to put enough pressure to return standardized testing to its proper role as one tool in an assessment system that includes multiple measures of learning,” Schaeffer said.
Sherin, author of “Mathematics Teacher Noticing: Seeing Through Teachers’ Eyes,” said, “If too many students opt out, policymakers are going to have to rethink how many tests are given and how teachers are using school time to prepare for these tests.”
CPS officials said they aren’t worried about the possibility of a large number of students being opted out of testing.
“The number of students that opt out of assessments is minimal, so we don’t foresee any significant impacts on the accuracy of evaluations,” the CPS official said. “It is important to remember that in teacher, principal and school evaluations, student assessments are not the only factor in evaluating performance.”
Creswell, parent at Goethe, said, “It has to happen at a certain volume for it to have an effect and for us to be able to show enough political strength that CPS will listen to us and cut back on testing.”
However, CPS said it has already begun to review its testing policy.
“CEO [Barbara] Byrd-Bennett has asked her new chief of accountability, John Barker, to review all existing assessments in our system, so she may analyze their use and purpose to ensure that each one adds value to our children's learning,” the CPS official said.
On April 25, CPS officials released a statement saying they would suspend the Northwest Evaluation Association Measures of Academic Progress for Primary Grades test for kindergarten through second grade, and they are transitioning to the MAP assessment for all second-graders.
“You could say Chicago is ground zero for some of this conversation,” said Fain, parent at Pritzker. “So, in the short term, we would like to see a radical decrease in the amount of testing and a radical decrease in the amount of test preparation.”
“When you get down to it, we’re still kids, we’re still learning, and we’re still growing,” Daisy said. "We’re not just something that you can test. I decided that I was going to opt out because I don’t think that anyone should have to be one finite thing.”