A growing number of parents seem to be intrigued by the idea of “opting out” from CPS tests, but are wondering about the implications of not having their children sit for the exams.

About 75 people attended a Raise Your Hand forum on testing Thursday night. Also, a Facebook group called Opt Out Chicago now has about 100 members.

Terry Walter, an officer for the district’s Office of Curriculum and Instruction, told the people at the forum that “we are listening” and that the issue of test prep instruction and high stakes accountability “is real.”

“The folks I am working with at Central Office are really trying to think through a rational approach to this,” she said.

A report released by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research in fall 2011 found that a focus on test prep at low-achieving schools may have actually lowered students’ scores in those schools during the period when CPS switched from the Iowa Test to the ISAT.

Panelist Noah Sobe, associate professor of cultural and educational policy studies at Loyola University Chicago, said that high-stakes testing is a new occurrence.

“It’s a misconception that we’ve always done it, and that there is no alternative,” Sobe said.

Sobe says assessments have always aimed to help people understand what is going on in schools, going back to the 19th-century spelling bee and continuing through the science fairs we have today.  But standardized tests began in the early 20th century, with intelligence tests, and aren’t well geared toward measuring critical thinking skills. “How many of us, in our daily lives, encounter a situation where there is a right answer to a question?” Sobe asked.

Madeline Kobayashi, who teaches 7th- and 8th-grade language arts at Rogers Elementary, spoke of watching “kids freak out, panic, cry” because of fear that they would fail the 8t- grade tests and be held back.

Kobayashi added that even teachers who oppose test prep feel like they must spend some time on it because “no matter if I like it or not, my scores are going to be looked at.”

A teacher’s dilemma

“It is really hard for teachers out there who are trying to do good by our kids, and also realize we will be judged by our test scores,” she said.

Mike Byrley, whose child is in kindergarten at Goethe Elementary, says his main concern about testing is the loss of instruction time for students.

“Their teacher is being occupied for an hour at a time [doing tests rather than teaching] – that’s what we have witnessed firsthand,” says Byrley, who volunteers at the school. “We are interested in seeing some major change in the big picture. We would like our child to opt out if it doesn’t harm the school.”

Some parents were concerned about possible blowback to schools and teachers from missed standardized tests. One asked if it would create more work for her children’s teachers if she opted them out of standardized testing.

“If I had students that were opting out, I would have them gladly read a book,” replied panelist Anne Carlson, a 4th– through 6th-grade teacher at Drummond Montessori.

Kylene Young, a teacher at Pulaski International School and Teach Plus Policy Fellow, asked the group about how opting out of test scores would affect a child’s chance at getting into selective enrollment schools. “We are very serious with our 7th-grade students” about the importance of those scores, she said. (Results on 7th-grade test figure into admission to selective-enrollment schools.)

A risky decision for kids

Raise Your Hand Founder Wendy Katten replied that she “would say it’s a bad idea” for a 7th-grade student who wants to apply to a selective enrollment school to sit out the ISAT.

But Goethe parent Cassie Creswell chimed in, “If enough people stand up and say, `it’s wrong… are we going cut all these people out of applying to selective enrollment?’”

Eben Credit, a community representative on Julian High School’s local school council, said he intended to take information back to parents at his school. He thinks they would be interested in having their students opt out of tests but added that many don’t know it is an option.

“Information like this, they don’t really get,” Credit said.

However, opting out is in a gray area of CPS policy, with the action taking place at the school level. The parent group PURE offers this fact sheet.

Erica Clark, of Parents 4 Teachers, said that “to change course, it’s going to take more than a few of us deciding to opt out.”

“We need to start thinking about what are some ways we can build a broader movement,” Clark said, even floating the possibility of a “mass system-wide boycott.”

Calls for a boycott

Near the end of the forum, organizers had the audience break into small groups and discuss possible strategies.

“People seem to think that opting out is like, ‘I don’t want my kids to take this test.’ But I think that if enough people do it, it’s direct action, it’s civil disobedience,” Creswell said.

Carol Caref, the Chicago Teachers Union’s Quest Center coordinator who was sitting across from Creswell, added that “what’s important is that this is a social issue, it’s not an individual issue of my kid taking or not taking the test.”

Increased concern about testing in CPS is not just about multiple-choice, standardized tests, but also the performance tasks in the REACH assessment system, used in part to evaluate teachers.

Performance tasks are viewed as more relevant to coursework than the ISAT. Students show their work, and teachers score the results on a 4-point scale. This kind of assessment is aimed at better capturing content knowledge, critical thinking skills and activities teachers cover in class.

However, the REACH assessments have been hampered by several logistical problems this year, likely because of the short time frame to develop and pilot them.

Diane Munoz, who teaches English and English Language Learner classes at Mather High School, complained that her children sat through many consecutive hours of testing in the same day due to the REACH performance tasks being administered in every class.

“It really saddens me to think there is an 8th-grade student who has to sit through six [REACH performance tasks],” Walter said. “The REACH performance tasks are for a teacher to give, not necessarily for a student to get in every subject.”

This article has been corrected to indicate the school where Cassie Creswell is a parent.

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