Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett sent a letter to parents on Wednesday telling them why they should not have their child opt-out of the ISAT and the NWEA/MAP tests, the second time in less than two months she has issued such a letter.

In a swift counter-move, parent groups that oppose high-stakes testing said the letters indicate that CPS leaders are worried about a growing resistance to standardized tests, with some parents saying their children spend too much class time on too many tests, with serious consequences tied to their outcome.

The Chicago Teachers Union joined in also, calling for a boycott of the ISAT this year.

“I guess they are getting anxious about parents waking up to fact that their children are being over-tested,” said Cassie Creswell, who is part of the organization More than a Score.

CPS spokeswoman Keiana Barrett said the two letters are just another “exhibition” of Byrd-Bennett being committed to “informing and educating parents about a range of in-classroom and out of classroom initiatives.”

 “This letter is intended to inform parents/guardians about the importance of the NWEA MAP test in determining student growth and areas of challenge. While we are encouraging all students to sit for the exam, due to its vast merit, the ultimate decision rests with individual families.” The NWEA/MAP is considered more difficult than the state’s ISAT, and is tied to national norms.

However, Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey took exception to Byrd-Bennett’s arguments for continuing the ISAT, which is being phased out. 

“We don’t want to tell parents what to do, but it doesn’t make sense for students to continue taking the ISAT,” Sharkey said.

In her letter, Byrd-Bennett says this year’s ISAT “will be more aligned to the Common Core (new national standards which are more rigorous than the current state standards) and will provide us with greater clarity on what our students know and can do under a new set of standards. ISAT and PSAE are required assessments under No Child Left Behind.”

Yet Sharkey points out that most schools in the state fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress—the federal rating under No Child Left Behind. And even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is not paying much attention to No Child Left Behind.

The ISAT will be replaced with a test called the PARCC. Until then the PARCC is ready, the NWEA/MAP will be used for promotion decisions, to determine if children are eligible to test for selective enrollment schools, to rate schools under the district’s system and for teacher and principal evaluation.

Sharkey notes that the ISAT eats up a lot of student time, time that is in short supply after four snow days so far this year. Also, it is expensive.

While parent groups said they hoped the letters might have the opposite effect, of informing parents that they can opt out, they also said they thought the tone was threatening and not completely honest.

“Parents are not idiots and I don’t think we should be treated as such,” Creswell said.

In addition to taking issue with the continued use of the ISAT, Creswell said More than a Score is also against the policy that ties the NWEA/MAP to grade promotion. Some students get stressed out and upset when faced with taking tests, knowing they could be held back. There should be an alternative for those children, she said.

Penalty for low participation

For the first time, the level of participation in the NWEA/MAP is part of the district’s rating system for schools, with schools penalized if participation falls below 95 percent. In a separate letter to teachers, Byrd-Bennett points this out.

Sharkey said it was ironic that Byrd-Bennett was using the participation rating as a threat, as though her administration had not created it.      

The letter also for the first time makes clear that the NWEA/MAP will be used to determine who can sit for the selective enrollment test, but it sets the bar low. The current policy limits the selective test to those students who ranked in the 50th percentile or above on the nationally normed section of the ISAT.

Now, according to the letter, students scoring above the 24th percentile on the NWEA/MAP will be eligible to test for selective enrollment high schools. Sharkey said the new standard is low because district officials are concerned about a lot of students doing poorly.

“These new Common Core assessments are brutal,” he said.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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