Parents speak out against PARCC opt out policies

By Taylor Mullaney

After the first week of state-mandated PARCC academic testing, some parents are speaking out for the right to exclude their children from taking the examination.

The Illinois State Board of Education provided a Frequently Asked Questions sheet about PARCC on its website in January. As to whether individual students or parents can opt out of PARCC assessments, ISBE states:

No. Districts can develop a policy for those students who refuse to take assessments on testing days, but federal and state law does not provide for any opt-out provisions.

“If fewer than 95 percent of students in a district take the assessment,” the statement continues, “The district will automatically fail to meet their accountability obligations and be at risk of losing federal funding, hurting our schools and ultimately all of our students.”

Kylie Spahn, a Downers Grove parent, said she feels her parental role is being diminished.

“The burden of refusal on our children is not acceptable,” said Spahn, mother of two daughters. “What I say should go…I’m a loving, caring, dedicated parent, and I know what’s best for my kids. And this test isn’t.”

The PARCC, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, is an examination that tests new Illinois Common Core standards. The testing window during which schools must administer PARCC began March 9 in many districts throughout the state.

Amanda Simhauser, spokeswoman at ISBE, said she was personally unaware of statistics about children and families who have opted out in the past. She added that districts have jurisdiction over how to handle children who refuse to take the exam.

Spahn, whose daughters attend school in District 58, said she was happy with how the district administered the exam last week.

“District 58 has been exceptionally good with treating our kids with kindness and respect,” Spahn said. “They have been incredibly supportive.”

Spahn said that after much research, she decided taking PARCC would not be in her daughters’ best interests. Spahn added this issue has become increasingly important to her not only as a parent, but also as a Downers Grove citizen.

“I started out as a really angry mom with my little protest sign saying, ‘I refuse the PARCC,’ standing out in front of my kids’ school, to now trying to put pressure on our politicians,” Spahn said.

Simhauser, however, said the exam provides many benefits to children that were not available through previous standardized testing.

“The PARCC assessments are requiring students to think more critically, provide evidence to back up their answers,” Simhauser said. “So it’s really focused on applying knowledge and real world learning, higher order thinking, as opposed to just regurgitating memorized facts. And those are all skills that…go a long way toward closing the achievement gap.”

Amy Pokras, parent of an 8th grade daughter in Oak Park, said she is not certain the PARCC exam can measure the skills Common Core aims to teach.

Parents met at Oak Park Public Library on March 6 to discuss options for opting out of the PARCC examination in the following week. (Taylor Mullaney / Medill)
Parents met at Oak Park Public Library on March 6 to discuss options for opting their children out of the PARCC examination in the following week. (Taylor Mullaney / Medill)

“The things Common Core emphasizes—which are creative thinking, independent learning, analysis of different materials—there’s no way that can be measured in a standardized test,” Pokras said.

Pokras’ 14-year-old daughter approached her parents about not taking the exam after seeing sample questions, which prompted Pokras to investigate PARCC. After much research, Pokras said, she ultimately decided the test would be redundant for her daughter, who will take other standardized tests as an 8th grade student.

Pokras said she is opposed to policy in District 97, where her daughter attends school, that students must “sit and stare” if they refuse to take the test, meaning that they may not read or work on other assignments during testing.

Sergio Hernandez, father of three children in Oak Park, shares Pokras’ frustration about the “sit and stare” policy. He said he also takes issue with the exam itself.

As an early childhood educator, Hernandez said he is especially concerned about problems the test might pose for students with learning disabilities, English language learners and students in other disadvantaged situations.

Hernandez said he would advocate for an exam that tests not only cognitive but also interpersonal skills.

“We’re missing the whole social-emotional piece, which actually helps determine whether kids will succeed in life,” Hernandez said. “Are they able to work in groups? Are they able to work in collaboration? Are they able to be critical thinkers? I don’t think PARCC is there yet.”

Hernandez said he is not against academic testing altogether and understands that it is necessary as kids continue to college and careers. But he said he also believes there must be boundaries. He said he hopes the opt out movement, which he considers civil disobedience, will promote parents’ rights to make more autonomous decisions about their children’s education.

“For me, this is a justice issue,” Hernandez said. “This is a personal rights issue…there is value in testing, but not at the expense of children’s curiosity and love of learning.”

Photo at top: More Than A Score Chicago, a group of four organizations aiming to decrease testing in CPS, has provided stickers kids can wear to indicate that they will not take the PARCC examination. (Taylor Mullaney / Medill)