Critics blast CPS immigration test question as offensive, inaccurate

May 26, 2014

Flickr/AFS-USA
File: Exam

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the immigration test question was restored to an online “performance task” database. WBEZ regrets the error. 

UPDATE: This article was updated on 5/27/14 at 5:50 p.m. with new information from Chicago Public Schools.

A test question for Chicago Public Schools seventh graders is being called “offensive,” “racist,” and factually inaccurate by groups as disparate as the Illinois GOP and the Chicago Teachers Union.

Earlier this month the district  yanked the controversial question—part of a new battery of tests meant to determine the effectiveness of teachers—with schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett issuing an apology for it. But WBEZ has learned that the district did not prohibit teachers from continuing to give the test. It “recommended” an alternative test, but allowed the immigration question to be administered with an “addendum” read aloud by the teacher.

The question asks pupils to read two commentaries—both opposed to undocumented immigrants becoming U.S. citizens—and evaluate the text and the authors’ biographies to determine which is “the most authoritative and relevant to support your argument OPPOSING a pathway to citizenship.”

“I think it’s best to keep America for Americans and those who know how to speak English properly,” says the first text. “Save America for those of us who know how to behave in law abiding ways.” The article says undocumented immigrants “should go back to where they came from,” and the author says he “dream(s) of a time when we ban all new immigrants to America both legal and illegal.”  The author is pictured as a black man named Arie Payo, identified as a former aide to “President Bush’s Immigration Taskforce” and a contributor to the "Conservative Journal.”

But it turns out that Payo, his opinions, his credentials and even the “Conservative Journal” are all made up; so is the second text, in which small business owner “Stella Luna”— coincidentally the title of a children’s book—is identified as the author of “The Dream Act is a Nightmare.” She worries that giving citizenship to immigrants “will increase the number of poor people in town.”

Eighty-five percent of CPS students are low-income.  Many are immigrants or children of immigrants.

“Shame on CPS, shame on whoever wrote this test question. From beginning to end I think it’s egregious,” said Sylvia Puente, director of Chicago’s Latino Policy Forum, which works on both immigration and education issues. Puente said working on the 45-minute test question could be emotionally stressful for children living in situations the authors berate.

“The language in these is really, really offensive and disconcerting and really reinforces negative stereotypes about immigrants,” Puente said. “As a seventh-grade child, I would say, ‘What are they saying about me? What does this say about who I am?’”

The controversial immigration test question was first made public on social media. CPS officials removed it from the testing lineup after a predominantly Latino school on the Southwest Side refused to give the exam earlier this month.  The “addendum” the district issued to the  immigration question instructs teachers to remind students they were tested on two pro-immigration viewpoints at the beginning of the school year and says they will now encounter two viewpoints opposing immigration.

“That addendum was sent to teachers because a number of the tests had been printed and distributed and CPS did not want students taking the exam without the broader context,” said CPS spokesman Joel Hood. “We have no reports of any additional students actually taking it.”

The district said just 32 students from two different schools were given the immigration question before it was temporarily pulled. The alternative test is about climate change. 

The Latino Policy Forum's Puente questioned why the district is using made-up opinion pieces to teach kids which sources are “authoritative.” She pointed out factual errors even in the set-up to the question, which states that “in January 2013, president Obama and Congress unveiled plans for immigration reform that included a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.”

That never happened.

And Puente is not the only one to find inaccuracies in the question. The fact that the comments were presented as those of a high-level Republican aide irked Illinois GOP leaders.

“Ironically, it probably would have taken less time to just research and cite a real Republican viewpoint than it must have taken to make this nonsense up,” said Jay Reyes, Republican state central committeeman from the heavily immigrant 4th Congressional District. Reyes said the question is “an unfair, uninformed take on a Republican viewpoint.”

The question is one of more than 160 “REACH performance tasks” that are part of the district’s new teacher evaluation system. The tasks, given in all district-run schools this month, are designed to show how much students have learned this school year—and by extension, how effective their teachers are. The immigration question was being used to evaluate the effectiveness of school librarians. Performance tasks like this one count for between 10 and 15 percent of a teacher’s evaluation this year.

Byrd-Bennett apologized: “Teaching children the importance of diversity, acceptance, and independent thinking are important values at CPS. We apologize for any misunderstanding and have provided librarians an alternative test to administer to students," she said in a written statement earlier this month. She said the test question “was intended for students to evaluate the biases, credibility and point of view of sources.”

The district said a beginning-of-the-year exam asked students to consider two opinions from pro-immigration advocates. CPS said no concerns were raised about that activity.

The district said just 32 students from two different schools were given the immigration question before it was temporarily pulled. The alternative test is about climate change.

Officials said they do not know exactly who wrote the test question, but CPS said, in general, REACH performance tasks have been designed by teachers, including librarians, “in partnership with (the Chicago Teachers Union).”

Carol Caref, who works on teacher evaluation issues for the union, said CTU doesn’t know what revisions take place to REACH questions between the time teachers help create them and the time they become official CPS “performance tasks.”

“I can’t believe that very many eyes were on this particular performance task,” Caref said. "Because I can't believe there isn't someone who would have looked at this and said, ‘Whoa.’”

Caref said the district has raced to get things like performance tasks in place; state law requires that student growth be a factor in teachers’ performance evaluations. But at the time the district adopted its new teacher evaluation system in 2012, CPS  had no formal way to measure how much individual teachers were contributing to student learning.

Caref said the immigration question “raises a lot of questions about the validity of these performance tasks…. The system is not set up to carefully do this. It’s done in a hurried way.” This is the second year CPS has administered performance tasks; it's unclear whether any students took the immigration exam last year.

Chicago parent Cassie Creswell, an organizer with the anti-testing group More Than a Score, said the immigration question highlights how testing in schools is shifting education.

"It's pretty easy to say (the test) is racist. And to just present that to a student with no context?" Creswell said the test wasn't designed by teachers to "fit into a classroom discussion or as an exercise for the students where they've had a lot of context leading up to it. That's the problem with a lot of standardized testing is that it's not really part of the curriculum," she says.

The pro- and anti-immigration test questions are posted below, along with the "addendum."

Linda Lutton is the WBEZ education reporter. Follow her @wbezeducation.