By Adam Heenan
Earlier this week, teachers at Saucedo Elementary, a public school on the southwest side of Chicago, unanimously voted not to administer the Illinois State Achievement Test (ISAT). Parents at Saucedo submitted close to 500 opt-out letters, and now that number is rapidly growing across the city. As of this morning, the Local School Council (school-based democratic decision-making body) at Murray Language Academy, in the upper middle class neighborhood of Hyde Park, also recommended that they “Ice the ISAT” at their school.
My hometown newspaper in Kankakee, Ill., weighed in to register its support of the ISAT, and condemned the Chicago Teachers Union for seemingly taking sides with the protesting parents. I responded to the editorial with a letter to the editor, and encourage teachers across the country to do the same. As teachers well know, testing as it is today is not the tool it was meant to be. The more we communicate to people who don’t work in schools or currently have children in the system about what’s really happening, in our classrooms, the more likely we are to create allies for better American schools.
Below is the text of my letter to the Kankakee Daily Journal. Please feel free to borrow from it to send letters to the editor of your local papers.
Born and raised in Kankakee, I now teach social studies in a large Chicago Public School (CPS) on the southwest side. I am also an elected and active delegate to the Chicago Teachers Union. I am directly involved in the testing Opt-Out boycott, which to clarify on behalf of the Journal, does not state that parents should “keep their children home” as the Journal claimed, but rather, send their children to school on ISAT Testing Day with an Opt-Out letter and books to read silently while tests are administered.
Last year, a few of my students opted-out of the second day of the Prairie State Achievement Exam (called Work-Keys), and you know what happened? Nothing. The Work-Keys test only gauges certain non-academic workplace tasks, like reading a manual and following a set of instructions (like, to build a “thing” the student won’t actually get to build in real life because they’re just taking a test). Neither CPS, the state of Illinois, nor potential colleges are holding anything against those students. In fact, I know of at least one student who wrote about his opting-out experience as “civic engagement” for a college entrance essay.
In the way that it is being used today, there is very little that standardized testing can tell us. I draw a very clear distinction from the kind of standardized testing that I was doing in high school, little more than a decade ago. The newest assessments do not reflect content being taught, and are not created,or scored by actual educators.
In nice round numbers, I am mandated by CPS administration to dedicate more than one month of my students’ classroom time to testing and test prep, of which only three hours of that is mandated for graduation in the Illinois. That’s for only my class; my students have seven others they visit each day. As multiple news local outlets have reported, even kindergarteners in CPS elementary schools are spending a third of their year — 60 days — on testing. Yes, Kindergarten.
In the Civil Rights era, standardized tests were created to assure equitable distribution of resources in schools. That doesn’t account for the upsurge in testing today. What is different now is the that we have two-fisted “carrot-or-stick” legislation: the No Child Left Behind Act, which labels schools that don’t make the grade as “failing,” and the follow-up Race to the Top, which “leases” those public schools — and all our tax dollars that go with it — to the highest bidder, namely charter school operators who are not beholden to public school funding transparency laws. With those groups, we never know how much of our money they are spending on classrooms or slick advertising, nor why they keep kicking out students with special needs because they claim those public school laws do not apply to them. However, we do know that charter operators suspend students at higher rates right before times of standardized testing, which has the effect of increasing their average test scores, making the charter schools look much better on paper than their public school counterparts. I should know, I taught at a charter school.
We know that, as a whole, standardized testing does not show us what students know. It’s more likely a predictor for what zip-code they live in and, at best, can tell us how well any given student may do in the first year of college. The newest brand of tests coming to Illinois next year, the Common Core-aligned MAP and PARCC (and the whole reason we’re phasing out ISAT anyway) do not test content, only math and reading skills, and only on a computer screen.
We also know that with the high-stakes attached to the tests, principals are increasingly under pressure and even willing to cut programming, especially in the arts, vocational technology, and electives such as my American Law class (one of the more popular courses we used to offer) to make room for a test-prep courses. Perhaps Kankakee teachers (Yes, I used to be one of them) aren’t sending in Student of the Month photos for “top-speller” because Spelling Bees have been all but eliminated along with everything else we used to love about school.
The bright note in all of this is that there are only three tests that are mandated by state law to graduate in Illinois: the first day of the PSAE, a beginning-of-the-year (BOY) exam, and an end-of-the-year (EOY) exam. Everything else is added on by local districts and can be opted-out of, if parents so choose. We need parents across Illinois to choose to opt their children out of irrelevant, valueless, and ultimately harmful tests.