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Standoff over new state school test continues

All Illinois school children are supposed to take a new state test just a few days from now, but those enrolled in the state’s largest school district remain caught in a political standoff.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, is replacing the old ISAT statewide exam. But public backlash against the new test and its corresponding standards – called the Common Core – has gotten louder than ever.

Chicago Public Schools is defying a state mandate that all schoolkids be tested. The district has declared that only 10 percent of city public schools will give the new test.

The Illinois State Board of Education has told CPS it must give PARCC to all student in third through eighth grades and all eleventh graders or it will lose millions in state and federal money.

"CPS risks anywhere from $400 million to $1.4 billion by not administering this test," said Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Mary Fergus. She noted the state could decide to remove CPS's recognition status, which could mean a loss of state aid.

A Chicago campaign gimmick?

The state’s strong response to Chicago's resistance left some wondering if the whole thing was a campaign gimmick to win votes from parents who oppose standardized testing.

Jennifer Biggs, a member of the parent group Raise Your Hand, said now that the election is over, she expected CPS to quickly take a more clear stand on the issue. 

“I really thought today there was going to be a solid PARCC decision announcement,” she said at Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting.

Boxes full of test materials have been delivered to schools across the city in the last week and Biggs said teachers are frantic.

“They are being told to move forward as if everyone is going to be tested,” Biggs said. “I am here to ask you to please tell us what is going on. Make a statement please.”

But no statement came.

At the end of the meeting, Board president David Vitale quietly reiterated that the district’s stance has not changed—only ten percent of schools will take the new test—but he said they’re still talking with the state.  

“We’re caught between a rock and a hard place and we’re trying to find a way out,” he said.

At a hearing in Springfield, CPS Chief of Accountability John Barker testified to the same effect.

“We do have serious reservations about a full implementation this spring,” he said. “And so, we plan to do an expanded pilot of PARCC, administering it to 10 percent of schools, rather than opting to fully implement this year.”

Barker said the district believes Common Core and the PARCC exam are the right move for the state, but CPS is just not ready.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey disagrees.

“The PARCC is the wrong thing to do,” Sharkey said. “We shouldn’t give this test. It’s longer than the bar exam, for God’s sakes. It’s longer than the MCATs. It’s longer than the exam you need to go to medical school. What are we doing? We’re over-testing kids. It’s gone too far.”

The state board says districts should not administer the 9-hour test in one day. They recommend giving it to students over several days.

They’ve also been encouraging parents and even reporters like me to try some sample questions. I took a handful of sample questions from the 5th grade math portion of PARCC. One question took me 20 minutes, another took just two.

Not just Chicago

The new test is part of a years-long effort to adopt more uniform standards across the country. Illinois and dozens of other states signed on to PARCC and the Common Core. Several have since backed out, including nearby Indiana.

The groundswell of opposition comes from all different directions.  Some worry that because it’s a more rigorous test, schools could end up with lower scores. Others have a problem with a national exam that takes away local control. And many, including the CTU, argue students are way over-tested.

Suburban parents gathered downtown Thursday to express their own concerns with the test. They want state lawmakers to approve an opt-out bill (HB306) that would give parents the right to refuse to have their children tested. As it stands now, by law, the only way to refuse the test is for students to verbally state they won't take it. 

"They need to say to their teacher, every single time that test is presented, 'No'," said Nicole Keough, a parent of twins in 3rd grade in Palos School District 118. 

It can be a difficult thing for students to do, said Gina Mathews, parent of a 4th grader and a 7th grader at District 36 in Winnetka. She said parents and families are circulating a list of students who plan to "opt-out" so children can know their friends are also refusing the test. 

But one mother, Violeta Gerue, said it's imperative Illinois lawmakers pass a bill that gives her, as a parent and taxpayer, the ability to speak for her children. Both have autism.

"I think it is very difficult for children who can speak to do this, and it is impossible for kids who are nonverbal, who have no ability to say it," Gerue said.

Fergus said any parent who does not want their child tested should discuss it with local administrators. She said districts are able to implement local policies for handling those situations, but she said, any school that does not test at least 95 percent of its students is in jeopardy of losing state and federal money. That's the situation CPS is in.

Fergus also noted that the new test is low-stakes this year.

"This is just the baseline year," she said. 

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