Activists involved in the opt-out movement want the state to change its tone when it comes to student refusals on state assessments. Credit: Courtesy of Shutterstock

When reports on the number of students “opting out” of standardized tests in other states began emerging recently, parent activists here in Illinois watched carefully to see whether those with high rates suffered any consequences.

State education officials had warned of potential financial penalties for districts if fewer than 95 percent of their students took the standardized state test, which last year in Illinois was the PARCC – with Chicago ostensibly risking more than $1 billion in state and federal aid if it didn’t meet that threshold.

So far though, there have been no dire consequences for the growing opt-out movement. Last month officials in New York, where one in five students refused to take the test, said districts with high numbers of students opting out wouldn’t be penalized.

Now parent groups in Chicago want the Illinois State Board of Education to stop threatening districts about financial penalties for opt-out rates.

“Now that the threat is gone, we want to know what their message or communications is going to be to parents,” says Wendy Katten, of the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand, which late last month penned a letter to ISBE along with More Than A Score. “Now they have to decide, are they going to sanction school districts at all? Because in the past their method to get schools to comply was the threat of a billion dollar loss.”

ISBE officials did not respond to requests for comment. And the parent groups say they have not received a response to their letter.

Release of official opt-out numbers

The state has not yet released opt-out numbers for Illinois. Districts are now in the process of “cleaning up” the data, which includes making sure students who opted out of the PARCC are properly coded, and differentiated from students who were simply absent during the testing window.

The information likely won’t come out until later this fall, around the time the state’s School Report Cards comes out — last year that was in late October.

Nationally, PARCC officials say the 11 states that administered the assessment – in addition to the District of Columbia — expect to release their test results between mid-October and the end of November, Education Week reports. PARCC ‘s governing board set cut scores for the assessment last week.

In Illinois, state officials are already warning parents to prepare for results  for the PARCC that look “much different than scores from previous state tests.” This reflects the higher expectations for staying on track for college and careers of the PARCC, which is aligned to the rigorous Common Core State Standards.

Growing opt-out movement

In 2014, just over 2,000 students in Illinois refused to take the state-mandated assessment, which at the time was the ISAT. Most of those refusals were in Chicago. The local opt-out movement was still nascent in 2014, with pockets of test resistance at elementary schools with active teachers and parents, such as Saucedo and Drummond, who worry about overtesting and questioned the need for a test that did not figure into student promotions or school ratings.

But in 2015, the movement took off statewide and advocates lobbied for a bill that clarifies parents’ rights to “opt” their children out of state assessments. In addition, Cassie Creswell of the anti-testing group More than a Score, said she heard from parents at dozens of Chicago schools and districts across Illinois who wanted to learn more about opting out.

Creswell created her own spreadsheet of schools and school districts, using data supplied by parent activists. She came up with about 7,500 opt-outs statewide, although she believes that’s an underestimate.

More than 1 million students from grades 3 to 9, including some 230,000 in Chicago, were supposed to take PARCC.

Principals self-reported data

During the administration of the PARCC, CPS officials asked principals to enter their opt-out numbers into a spreadsheet each day in order to get a sense of refusals across the district. According to this data, which Catalyst obtained through a public records request, principals reported 9,600 opt-outs.

A Catalyst review of the numbers suggests that they are incomplete, at best. (For this reason Catalyst is not publishing the school-by-school data.) Some schools with high rates of student activism around opting out – such as Kelly High School — don’t show any refusals at all. And data from some schools with strong activism from teachers and parents, such as Saucedo, seem to be an undercount.

Also, charter schools are not included.

Selective-enrollment high schools, including Lane, Northside and Lindblom, had some of the highest numbers of opt-outs, with activist students leading the charge at those campuses.

Blaine Elementary — whose outspoken principal Troy LaRaviere was recently disciplined in part for supporting parents involved in the opt-out movement – reported the highest number of refusals of any elementary school, according to the data.

That’s confirmed in a letter to LaRaviere explaining the disciplinary action from CPS CEO Forrest Claypool. The CEO wrote that “due in part, to your open opposition to PARCC testing, more than 50 percent of Blaine students did not take the test. Blaine had the highest number of elementary students not taking the PARCC test than any other elementary Chicago Public School.”

(LaRaviere has written a lengthy post on his blog about the CPS warning and his support for the “parent-driven effort” at his school against the assessment.)

Like Blaine, many schools with the highest numbers of students opting out are on the North Side, and have disproportionately more students who are white and middle-class. Still, there are notable exceptions, such as Murray, Mollison and Jenner elementary schools on the South and West sides.

All but nine of the 206 schools where principals reported “zero” PARCC refusals had higher-than-average poverty rates. Principals at more than half of all schools in the data set reported at least one student had refused to take the assessment.

Many of the schools with high opt-out numbers have teachers or parents who were actively involved in the movement or other education issues. One of the parents at Mollison, for example, is currently on a hunger strike in support of reopening Dyett as a neighborhood high school.

CPS officials declined to answer questions about the data.

One school’s story

Anthony Cappetta, a teacher at Lindblom, says that even though the self-reported data may have inaccuracies, it’s interesting that the refusal numbers appear higher at schools with more middle-class parents or families who have a history of activism. “When parents are engaged, they choose to make a decision to opt their kids out of the exams,” he says.

Cappetta, who is also a member of Catalyst’s editorial advisory board and penned a column here that was critical of the PARCC, says parents of Lindblom students began asking questions during the 2013-2014 school year about whether there was any value in taking the ISAT.

While a statewide standardized test was required by the state and federal governments, neither the ISAT nor the PARCC counted toward student promotion or school accountability metrics.

When more Lindblom parents raised questions last school year, the school’s parent advisory council held a meeting to inform parents about opting students out, Cappetta says. Teachers also spoke with parents after school, and the principal told parents that while he did not condone opting out, students who refused to take the test would still have a space to learn during the days the PARCC was administered.

Meanwhile, teachers at some schools with low opt-out numbers said their principals took threatening positions about opting out and actively discouraged parents from giving students permission to opt out.

“There tended to be more fear mongering at some schools with lower levels of participation,” says Sarah Chambers, a teacher at Saucedo who has been one of the leaders of the opt-out movement. “Some principals are afraid of losing students or being targeted for closure. We’ve heard of instances of retaliation against teachers who were talking about opting out with parents.”

(The Chicago Teachers Union’s House of Delegates voted in favor of supporting the opt-out movement in March.)

At some high schools, the opt-out movement was largely student driven. At Kelly High School, for example, Aislinn Diaz learned about the opt-out movement by visiting the More Than A Score web site. She printed copies of a sample refusal letter for her classmates.

“I thought, why not? If the test is something that really doesn’t matter that much and doesn’t affect us in any way, why not learn more about it and see what we can do to stop it from happening,” said Diaz, who will be a sophomore at Kelly this fall. “I printed a bunch of copies and during lunch one day, I gave it to all my classmates.”

Teachers say hundreds of freshmen opted out at Kelly, although the self-reported data from the school indicates that none did.


Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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