Standing in a friend’s kitchen, Sherry Coleman rattles off the list of standardized tests this year at Drummond Elementary school, where she sends her three daughters.
“The REACH test, the Fountas and Pinnell test, the MPG test, the CPS Kindergarten assessment, NWEA, ISAT, EXPLORE test, ACCESS test, Algebra exit exam for 7th and 8th graders, and I know they have the DIBELS,” she says. “Anything else that you guys have that we don’t have?” she asks the other parents huddled around Sabrina Craig’s kitchen counter.
They’re here talking about the testing that happens on almost a monthly basis in Chicago public elementary schools this year.
In CPS, there are no fewer than 13 different standardized tests that students might come across throughout their school years, and many of those tests are taken multiple times between kindergarten and graduation.
And these parents aren’t very happy about how it all works.
“Some of the kids had to redo the test because the iPad failed and they were doing the math part and half the kids had already done it… it was taking so long,” Cassie Cresswell says about her daughter’s school, Goethe Elementary.
“(At a meeting) Grades never came up,” says Chris Ball, whose daughter goes to Oscar Mayer Elementary. “It was just a series of they’re taking this tests and later we’ll see on this test and on this standardized test.”
For parent Rita Bramble, whose child goes to Stone Magnet School in Edgewater, it’s all the money that gets spent on testing that’s frustrating.
“When I’m being asked as a parent to fundraise for the art teacher to get a color printer, that really angers me,” Bramble says. “Because millions of dollars are being spent on these tests that I oppose and we can’t even get a color printer.”
But here’s the rub: “Nobody can really tell me what the benefits of all those tests are either,” Coleman says.
Frustration with testing has been bubbling for a few years. But in Chicago, add some new tests for evaluating teachers, a longer school day, mix in the attention brought to testing by the teachers strike, and it’s hitting a boiling point.
These parents are a microcosm of something happening all over the country—more parents are boycotting standardized testing—by simply not letting their kids take certain ones. It’s called opting out and nationally, it’s gaining momentum, as federal laws push for even more testing in order to evaluate teachers and measure student progress.
Parents are organizing online in order to have a bigger impact, because, as Coleman puts it, one person opting out isn’t going to change the system.
These parents gathered in Craig’s kitchen went to Julie Woestehoff for advice. She helps parents navigate the opt out process. And it’s not easy.
CPS has no official opt out policy and many administrators will tell parents it’s simply not allowed.
That’s because a lot rides on student test scores, making opt out all the more risky. Test scores are used to determine if a child can move to the next grade and district officials use test results to classify schools as good or bad. In extreme cases, they also determine when to shut a school down.
But if people start opting out of standardized tests in large numbers, then what happens?
“If you get a revolt on the part of parents and you only get 70 or 80 or 90 percent of the kids to take the tests then you don’t have a true picture of the full enrollment and that’s invalid data,” says Doug McRae.
McRae spent more than 45 years in the testing industry, designing national accountability tests for McGraw Hill and working with state and local districts.
On one hand, he says parents should have a right to opt out of tests they don’t find useful, but on the other, districts want to have some way to compare schools accurately.
“Have a stronger policy that says parents should not opt out of their kids taking those tests, but limit the amount of time those tests take,” McRae says.
The barrage of testing in Chicago is partly because CPS is changing how it holds teachers and schools accountable for student achievement.
A CPS spokeswoman says parents need to know that tests are critical—because they measure progress and help teachers and administrators know when a student might be struggling. She says before any parent can opt out, the district works to help them understand why having their child take the test is helpful to understanding what they’re learning.
But Drummond teacher Anne Carlson says that’s not the case.
“First of all, we already know these things,” Carlson says. “Even if we look at the children and we see their rank in the class, it’s very consistent with what we see already. So it’s a waste of time for many of us.”
Whatever the purpose, many parents still want out.
But given the high stakes placed on the test, Cassie Cresswell is torn.
“To do the business boycott metaphor: I want to boycott the business but my local franchise? I love the owner and the employees,” Cresswell says. “I love our principal, I love our teachers, it is a great community and I would hate to do something that hurts that school in any way.”
But Sabrina Craig tells her it doesn’t need to be that complicated.
“I think there should be some kind of form where you just fill in the form, you check off, I’m opting my child out of the following tests, check, check, check,” Craig says. “Thousands of parents could do all over this city.”
But for now, a spokeswoman for Chicago schools says parents must take all opt out requests to their principals.