Saucedo teachers spend Day 1 of ISAT teaching; concerns raised about intimidation

Activists say schools are pressuring parents, teachers and students to have kids take the state test.

March 5, 2014

WBEZ/Linda Lutton

Teachers at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy declared victory Tuesday, saying their protest of the state’s Illinois Standards Achievement Test is working. The teachers said they spent the first day of ISAT testing doing what they set out to—teaching.

A week ago, teachers at the Little Village school voted unanimously to refuse to give the exam, which normally carries high stakes in Chicago but is being phased out this year. The school district has said boycotting teachers could lose their jobs or even their teaching certificates.

“I’m very, very happy to say today was a victory,” said special education teacher Sarah Chambers after the final bell rang at Saucedo on the first scheduled day of testing there. “Overall it went smoothly. The kids who were opting out had the test placed in front of them and they were immediately removed to an opt-out room, where teachers who were refusing to give the test—the boycotting teachers—were able to teach them,” said Chambers.

Social studies teacher Ferris Akrabawi  said he led students in readings from Mahatma Gandhi's 1922 trial for sedition. “One person’s insubordination is another person’s… cry for change,” Akrabawi says he taught students.

But the teachers and activists also decried what they said were heavy-handed tactics on the part of schools to try to get students to take the ISAT. Hear more about this by pushing PLAY above.

Chambers said at Saucedo, some parents who had opted their children out of testing rescinded their opt-out letters after getting calls from the school. She said some teachers who had originally voted to boycott the exam ended up administering it, fearing for their jobs.

In other parts of the city, a teacher from Otis Elementary in West Town said opt out forms signed by parents weren’t respected, and kids were given the test anyway. A dad from Jane Addams Elementary on the Southeast Side said his nine-year-old daughter had to watch classmates eat candy and ice cream after they took their test; kids who opted out didn’t get any.

Chicago Teachers Union vice-president Jesse Sharkey said it was “child abuse” to put test booklets in front of students whose parents had opted them out of the test. Because state law requires the test be given to all students, some schools handed out test booklets and had teachers read instructions, even to kids who had opted out. Opt out advocates say that put kids as young as eight years old in a situation where they had to choose whether to follow their parent’s instruction to skip the test or their teacher’s instruction to complete it.

“You’re hearing all these accounts of bullying,” Chambers said. “Why is this occurring? It’s occurring because our CPS is controlled by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. And he is a bully.”

CPS parent Cassie Creswell urged the mayor and school officials to be more sensitive to the demands of parents. Creswell said Emanuel had effectively opted his own children out of the ISAT by enrolling them in a private school that gives few standardized tests.

The district did not respond to questions about particular incidents at schools, but CPS says it won’t tolerate acts to coerce or intimidate students into taking the ISAT.

However, officials say they are in conversations with the state about disciplining the boycotting teachers. 

Parents want the right to opt their children out of testing

On Monday, two dozen Chicago parents filed a complaint asking the American Civil Liberties Union to determine whether parental rights are being violated when it comes to opting their children out of the the ISAT.

“Parents are being asked to rescind their opt out letters, children are being told to call up their parents and opt them back in—egregious violations of parental rights, egregious mistreatment of children,” said Creswell, who is part of the anti-testing group that has spearheaded the opt out effort in Chicago, More Than a Score. The group advocates for less standardized testing in schools.

But the Illinois State Board of Education says there is no legal mechanism in state law for parents to opt their children out of the federally required accountability exam. All schools must test all third through eighth graders, the state says. Illinois law does allow for students to “refuse to engage” with a test. Students must be offered the test,  but they can refuse it and sit quietly through the testing process, or, if a district allows, read a book during the test, the state board says.

The state has encouraged parents to have their children take the ISAT. “Testing is another point of information that educators can use about children,” Illinois State Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch said. Scores this year will give an indication of how well students are performing against new Common Core standards, he said.

Chicago Public Schools is not saying how many students have opted out of the ISAT; activists say it’s at least 1,500 kids at 80 schools. Some 171,000 Chicago students were scheduled to take the ISAT.