Parents Beware! Of Unnecessary, Invalid and Unreliable Test Scores

By Judy Smizik

Are all of the tests our children taking at school necessary? Are the results valid and reliable? Should our kindergartners be assessed on reading skills? Our tests today reflect the Common Core State Standards, but are the standards developmentally appropriate? These are questions parents need to ponder when reviewing their children’s test results. They also need to ask themselves if all these tests are necessary. Are they depriving their children of valuable instruction time, as well as other vital educational components such as play, recess and creativity?

As a teacher, parent, and grandparent, my answer to that last question is, “yes.” There is no research that says five-year-olds need to read. Yet, the tests used at the beginning, middle and end of kindergarten require children to do just that. I have had many students reading in kindergarten, but these children were developmentally ready to read. Reading was encouraged, but not forced. Years ago, tests were not required at all in kindergarten. Kindergarten was once a blooming garden where children could play, socialize, create, imagine, explore, and develop skills at an individual pace.

Because of the rigorous standards of today, kindergarten is now a place where students are required to sit for long periods of time, pay attention, and perform tasks that were once considered first grade skills. Kindergarten teachers are forced to administer a plethora of individual and group tests throughout the year. Most teachers, through classroom observation and progress monitoring charts, know their students’ strengths and weaknesses without the need for standardized testing. Have you ever tried to give the DIBLES (a mandated individual test in most states) while monitoring a classroom of 25 other kindergarten students? Did the DIBLES tell you anything more than what you already knew about the students? The answer is, “no!” So why give them?

The overuse of tests has caused many students to give up. Some of our students are late bloomers and need a little more time to develop. Some have learning difficulties. Are all these tests helping them overcome their learning challenges, or are they creating anxiety, stress, and feelings of failure? Overuse of testing begins in kindergarten and continues throughout the student’s schooling. Last week, I was asked to assess a student’s readiness for second grade. When I pulled out my stopwatch, the child responded with a look of trepidation on his face. “Do you have to time me?” he pleaded. “Just this once, “I promised.

When designing this student’s individual education plan, I needed first to help him overcome his fear of making mistakes when reading and let him see he can be successful. All the testing he has experienced has had a detrimental effect on him.

This student is not alone. I have witnessed numerous children cringe when the teachers announced it was time for a test. I have seen others who have just given up and put their heads down on their desks.

What can parents do to help eliminate the overuse of testing? In Pittsburgh and other places, a group of parents and teachers are asking parents to “opt out of the testing.” Parents need to put in writing that they do not want their children taking standardized tests. Because teachers are forced to teach to the test, test results are not reliable. Teaching to the test narrows the content of the curriculum, denying students a comprehensive education. It also makes the results questionable.

Parents need to demand we go back to a developmentally appropriate curriculum, where students are encouraged to take risks, be creative, imagine, problem solve, and think critically. They need to have time to socialize and play when they are in younger grades. Too much testing is depriving them of the experiences they need to become well-rounded individuals. If a student is experiencing academic difficulty, he should be given the gift of time to develop his skills in a stress-free learning environment that accommodates his academic needs. It is not the time to put more unnecessary stress on a student who is already feeling inadequate.

It’s time to eliminate the overuse of tests and focus on the real needs of our children. We need real educators with real practical experience to establish educational policy. The Common Core State Standards need to be revisited, and a new direction in the best interest of all students needs to be taken. Our children are our future.

Judy_SmizikJudy Smizik is an educator with over 35 years of experience. She is a  former President of the Pittsburgh Association of Kindergarten Teacher and a member of Delta Kappa Gamma, an International Educational Society.  Presently, she mentors new teachers, provides professional development workshops, and has a private practice.

Marshall Middle School teacher delves into world of public policy

By Chuck Carlson

It started with an email. Where it ends? Even Lesley Hagelgans isn’t quite sure.

But the Marshall Middle School eighth grade teacher does know this: She’s going to enjoy the ride and do what she can to help change the dialogue and, perhaps, the direction of public education.

“I’m a teacher, a mom and a writer,” Hagelgans said. “Writing has taken me to Washington, D.C. twice, New Orleans and New York City. I’ve gotten to see people around the country and meet people I never thought I would have met.”

She has found herself deep in the often complex, sometimes frustrating world of public policy. In fact earlier this month, she was in Denver with nine other educators from across the country in the National Education Association “Raise Your Hand: Empowered Educators” representing Vision Ideas Voice Action, a teacher-empowerment group.

She has become a powerful local voice in teacher evaluations and in the national VIVA program and she has met with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to voice her ideas and suggestions.

“It’s very fulfilling,” she said.

And it all started with a single email.

In fact, it was an email blast that came from Marshall school superintendent Randy Davis, by way of a school board member, and it asked the generic question, “If you had $3.94 billion to spend on public education, how would you spend it?”

The number was not random — it was the amount the federal government currently spends on professional development in education — and the question intrigued Hagelgans, who teaches language arts and is the school’s yearbook adviser.

“I was just going to spend 15 minutes on the computer looking into it and I was there two hours,” she said. “I was sucked in. And when I was in Denver, the other teachers all said the same thing.”

That initial foray was a little more than three years ago and since then, she has become an advocate for VIVA Teachers and the launching of its Idea Exchange, a three-step process developed by New Voice Strategies to increase participation in public policy.

The plan is to begin an online conversation and then bring those who are truly interested into a room to discuss recommendations for teacher accountability, teacher support and more.

Those recommendations made their way to Duncan’s office and he met with a group of teachers, including Hagelgans, in D.C.

He discussed some of the proposals and seemed non-committal, she said, but six months later, he introduced the “Race to the Top” program, the Education Department’s $4 billion contest created to spur innovation and reforms in state and local public education.

She has also found herself in groups discussing public education and funding with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which over the years has donated millions to education.

“It’s taken on a life of its own,” she said. “It’s so cool.”

It was never supposed to be this way for Hagelgans, who while growing up in central and southern Illinois, figured she’d eventually do something with what she knew best — math.

“We moved down to Carterville, Ill. and it was a small town, but kind of cliquey, something like Marshall, though no disrespect to Marshall,” she said. “I had a teacher named Connie Church and all the cliquey groups fell away. She said everyone has a voice and she didn’t care about your past. For the first time I felt like I belonged in a small town.”

Hagelgans had Church as a teacher for three classes by her senior year but in October of her senior year, Church, her husband, her sister, her sister-in- law and two others died in a horrific traffic accident.

“We had to do something so we all went to her house,” Hagelgans said. “She brought us together when she was alive and she brought us together in death. But she pushed me in language arts. It just opened up for me. She gave me the push I needed.”

She also provided the template for Hagelgans, who decided to make her life’s work teaching.

She went to Western Michigan University, earning a bachelor’s degree in English and political science and a master’s in middle school teaching.

She heard about an opening at Marshall Middle School and, 15 minutes into the interview, was hired. She’s been there ever since and she has made it a point to teach the way Mrs. Church did, making every kid feel comfortable.

“I want to give kids that sense of community,” said Hagelgans, who turns 38 this week and lives in Union City with her husband Michael and their two kids, Damen, 9, and Delilah, 6, who both attend Hughes Elementary.

She continues working with educators around the country in VIVA Teachers as well as writing about public policy and the role of public education today.

“It’s like being a doctor,” she said. “You make a diagnosis of students and get a prescription for how to make them better.”


Originally posted Jul. 13, 2014 by the Battle Creek Enquirer 

Let’s Fix Inequality in Public Education

By Allan Fluharty

A central tenant of education is to prepare students to participate in a democratic society. We want them to value a diversity of thought and culture, as well as a commitment to equity and justice. Unfortunately, I do not see equality and justice in public education in Illinois on several levels.

Families raising children in Chicago are faced with tough educational choices, decisions that have life-changing impact on their kids. One is to stay in the city or move to a suburban district with well-funded schools. There is a vast difference between city, suburban, and rural schools in Illinois, in funding and educational outcomes. Most families who can afford it move.

Funding public education in Illinois is based on property taxes, which has created a dysfunctional system that favors the students who are lucky enough to live in well-to-do communities. Public education in Illinois is not progressive; it does not provide an equal education for all of our citizens.

In the Chicago, there are also great differences between schools. Some families send their children to private or parochial schools; however, most parents don’t have the means to pay both for taxes and tuition. Many families live in areas of Chicago with fine CPS schools, but other families don’t. Over the last 25 years, public education in Chicago evolved into a potpourri of options with magnet, select enrollment and neighborhood schools, both at the elementary and high school levels. There are also numerous charter school operations, some large and politically connected—who operate semi-autonomous schools with public funding. The “best” schools—those with the most successful results and highest funding, are the magnet and certain charter schools. Competition to enter the best schools is intense, involving a combination of grades, standardized test scores, and a lottery. Parents with students in CPS hope their children will have the grades and the luck to get into a magnet or a good charter school.

Incredibly, the separation and categorization of students also occurs inside schools, where students are placed, or “tracked,” into regular, honors, AP, and IB classes. IB classes are particularly divisive, creating a “school within a school” that splits the student body and the faculty into separate cliques. An after effect of splitting out the best students is that  “reluctant learners” are concentrated into lower level classes whose teachers must focus on social/emotional issues—such as tardiness, absent students, poor behaviors, and so on—at the expense of academic learning. It is typical that novice teachers are assigned to these challenging classes—teachers with the least experience handle the most challenging students.

Public schools in Illinois are divided by affluence, grades, behavior, and social-economic status. Perhaps the best gift a parent can give to their children is to live within the boundaries of well-off school districts. CPS separates children into neighborhood, select enrollment, magnet, and charter schools. Families pray that their children win the ‘educational lottery’ and get into the best schools. This separation continues with a vengeance within most schools through tracking and now school-within-school programs.

Enough is enough! Separating students based on class and ability is not done in public school systems of other industrialized nations as now practiced in the United States. More equitable systems in Europe, Asia, and North America—Finland, Singapore, and Canada, for example—are outpacing the U.S. by wide margins. Public education in the U.S. needs get back on track. It is time to put the “public” back into public education and introduce equity as a key provision.

Parents need to vote for politicians and policies that support the ideals of progressive education, in particular the ideal of educational equity.

Allan-FluhartyVIVA Teacher Allan Fluharty is a National Board Certified high school science teacher for the Chicago Public Schools. 

Design for Safety

By Mark Anderson

We talk a lot about the physical design of schools on this blog, as we know that the physical environment can have a great impact on learning. In this article on CNN from Paul Caron from last year on designing schools for safety in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, here’s some principles of school design that are worth exploring.

Layers of hurdles can be designed for unwanted visitors, with corridors, entries and exits that are still clearly visible to teachers, said Robert Ducibella, a member of the Sandy Hook commission and founding principal of DVS Security Consulting and Engineering.

Adding transparent buffering allows time for visitors to be assessed. If we consider this design feature from the standpoint of aesthetics, not only safety, we could also consider how entryways can be used to transition visitors from the external community into the school community in a manner that communicates what the school is about. For example, there might be a series of switchbacks leading up to the school doors that could be adorned with plantings made by the students, or a short hallway before the entryway that depicts pictures and artwork made by the students.

Some security features can improve everyday life in schools. Adding doors that connect classrooms can make it easier for teachers to work as teams, and in a dangerous situation, makes it easier for them to move students to safer areas.

Glassed hallways allow teachers and other adults in the schools to see an intruder but also to combat problems such as bullying.

Visibility and connectability are important design features in a school. Open space design has been tried and rejected in education and now in many offices as too distracting, but having the option to both open up and close off spaces is important. Design that allows for this level of flexibility and control would be much appreciated by teachers so that they can collaborate in bigger or small groups as necessary without the acoustic and visual distractions of an open space.

Visibility is highly critical in a school not only for safety, but furthermore when we consider the importance of allowing natural light into a building. All too often schools feel like enclosed dungeons rather than like spaces we’d want our children to grow in and spend the majority of their day within.

The topic of physical infrastructure of schools isn’t a sexy topic, and it’s not written or discussed much in the media on education, yet it is clear that it is a critical consideration in education not only for its impact on learning, but furthermore for safety. As the article notes:

But it often takes a local tragedy to make security a priority. Security experts said lawmakers need to make safety upgrades mandatory, as they have in other areas.

It’s terrible to say, but America is built around response management,” said Ducibella, the Sandy Hook commission member. “In most states in the country, we don’t have a perfect security criteria document for school design, which the Sandy Hook commission is looking at. We don’t have uniform criteria that is legislatively enforceable.”

This is unfortunately true. But given that we tend to ignore the impact of the physical environment of schools on learning, I wonder how long the tragedy of decrepit schools must be inflicted on our children before we realize that how we design our schools reflects how we value our future?

Mark-Anderson-150-Mark Anderson is a 7th and 8th grade Special Education teacher in the Bronx.



This blog was originally posted on on July 6, 2014

VIVA Teachers Share Habits of Innovative Educators

By Tina Nolan, National Leadership Development Director

 The truth is, innovation is like your health. If you treat it like a fad diet, you’ll get frustrated and exhausted. If you develop good habits, the results will engage your students like you’ve never seen before.

This summer, New Voice Strategies is taking part in launching its first online course, and placing teachers at the center of leading change in schools. Developed by TedX speaker Courtney O’Connell, 5 Habits of Innovative Educators is an online class to uncover the habits of what she calls “disruptive educators,” individuals who are working to change the education system from within.

New Voice Strategies invites all VIVA Teachers to participate in this exciting experiment. You can register online at

The foundation of the course is a series of six video lectures from Courtney. Those are complemented by guest lectures from innovators in and outside of education, case studies written by innovative educators — including four of our very own VIVA Teachers — and two live Q&A sessions. As a participant in this course, you will receive access to more than 24 lectures and 3.5 hours of content! Use this link to save $20 (an exclusive rate just for New Voice Strategies):

The participating VIVA Teachers are Joshua Agpalza (VIVA NEA – Time in School), Laura Hirschfield (VIVA NEA – Safety), Katie Morosky (VIVA NEA – Safety), and Jim Szewc (VIVA MET). In their case examples, they share how educators can disrupt the status quo without adding any money to their budgets or time to their day.

Want to know more? 

Here’s a blog Courtney wrote about the course to explain some of the “unknown” perks about the course:

Here’s a short video explaining the course:


Special New Voice Strategies Coupon Code:

Share this link with your email list and on your social media channels to make sure your teacher colleagues save $20:




Small Steps Will Save Kids Lives

By Katherine Doerr Morosky

December 14, 2012, is in my, and perhaps all of America’s, pantheon of “days that will live in infamy”. Almost every moment of that day — when 20 of my daughter’s peers and seven of her teachers’ colleagues were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School, one mile from our home — is etched in my brain like a nightmare that has no end. My family and I cope with our intense pain by lending our voices to the struggle for gun violence prevention. Trips to Hartford and Washington D.C., are practically a monthly occurrence. I cold-call senators and representatives, dash off letters to the editor in less than an hour, and tweet in my sleep.  Newtown was supposed to be a tipping point. So many of us gave it our all: President Obama and Vice-President Biden, the devastated parents of murdered children, and even my daughter, who walked the halls of the Congressional Office Building to show our elected officials just how small a six-year-old really is.

Shockingly, a few cowardly politicians, beholden to the corporate gun lobby and its extremist mouthpiece, the NRA, blocked a vote on universal background checks for gun purchases. What has their perversion done to innocent children across this country? According to Everytown for Gun Safety, in the one and a half years since the Sandy Hook tragedy in Newtown, 74 school shootings have occurred and nearly 50,000 Americans have been killed by guns. The toll that gun violence takes on Americans is an escalating crisis.

Not all politicians are craven, and progress has been made at the state level. For example, Connecticut state legislators bravely worked in a bipartisan fashion last spring to strengthen laws that will make my state safer, including a limit on the size of ammunition magazines, restrictions on military-style assault weapons, and universal background checks. Although all American children deserve these same safeguards to be federal law, progress is going to be incremental.

The intersection of domestic violence and gun violence is an area where several federal bills have recently been introduced.

KMOROSKYThe author, Katie Morosky (right), meeting with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and staff on June 18, 2014.  Sen. Blumenthal is the author of the Lori Jackson Domestic Violence Survivor Protection Act.

One in particular is meaningful to me. It honors a Connecticut woman who was shot and killed by her violent husband after she received a temporary restraining order. Because the law allowed him to possess a gun before the order became permanent, this dangerous person was able to kill his wife with a legal weapon! The Lori Jackson Domestic Violence Survivor Protection Act will compel domestic abusers who are subject to temporary restraining orders to temporarily surrender firearms they possess, and bar them from purchasing firearms for the duration of the temporary order. This important law will protect women and children in abusive relationships when they are most in danger. In fact, 57% of mass shootings involve the murder of a close family member.

Of course, the Lori Jackson bill and other laws designed to protect vulnerable women from gun violence can work best when the United States passes universal background checks for all gun purchases. In states like Connecticut that require background checks on all handgun sales, 38 percent fewer women are shot to death by their partners than in states with no background checks. Would the Lori Jackson bill have made a difference at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2014.  Perhaps not, but every small step in the right direction creates positive momentum. The difference to me as an educator and mother is this:  the bill will have a real impact on the lives of countless children who live in homes where the intersection of domestic and gun violence is potentially lethal to them, their loved ones, and to their communities.


Katherine Doerr Morosky teaches science at Wilton High School in Wilton, Conn. She participated in the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative on school safety.

Race, Class, and Justice in Education- it all comes down to trust

By Annie Tan

When I started the process of becoming a teacher, I was idealistic. I was going to be Ms. Sheridan, my first-grade teacher, who made me feel confident for the first time. Or, I was going to be my second-grade teacher Mrs. Yee, who sat with me through lunch periods to work on my handwriting. I was excited. I was going to incorporate social justice into my teaching, and make sure everyone was heard! Yes! Then I started teaching.

As any teacher can tell you, it has been exhausting. It’s not just from preparing for and teaching my students who have autism, cognitive delays, and developmental disabilities. Everything seems so overwhelming when you’re new: the evaluations, testing, constant meetings, new policies, learning Common Core standards. So, it was refreshing to attend the VIVA Teachers Talk with Jose Vilson and Melinda Anderson, to hear research and personal experiences from other teachers on the ground going through cycles of reform, all while learning how to teach, and teach well.

The June 14th event, “Race, Class, and Justice in Education,” featured Vilson via video chat (his plane to Chicago was grounded by weather) and Anderson via Twitter @mdawriter. Vilson began by reading excerpts from his book, This is Not a Test, about his first years of teaching and the difficulties he faced being a teacher of color in an urban education setting. He weaves in elements of memoir and research to speak to the pertinent education issues of the day. I listened and related to his story. I know what it’s like to be a young, idealistic, and often lost teacher who’s trying to make a difference with my students. I too am a teacher of color and who knew, at least a bit, what my students were going through. The discussion that followed Vilson’s reading covered a dizzying array of topics related to everything education reform: teacher tenure, especially in the wake of Vergara in California; diversity in our teaching force; Common Core; the influx of teachers through programs such as through Teach For America; and how to incorporate social justice into teaching today.

One key thread through the conversation was about creating trusting relationships between teachers and students — something Vilson said was simply not on the top of the education policy agenda and constantly ignored.

Vilson said we cannot focus so much on building curriculum if we don’t have humanity, trust and camaraderie in teaching. That’s hard to do, especially with everything teachers are juggling.

Race and class complicate and widen this issue of trust. Vilson called it “hair-raising” how few teachers of color — all colors — there are. I am Asian, so I very much related to what he was saying. It’s not something that’s often talked about when we talk about education reform today, but as a student, I know how important it was for me to see people who looked like me. It wasn’t just about representation; it was feeling that I could trust this person, and that this person had lived, at least a little bit, what it meant to be Asian in America. I teach in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Chicago, so I don’t always look like the kids I teach. This makes me responsible for learning the neighborhood, having good parent relationships, being as open as possible while checking my own biases. Without that trust, openness and honesty, especially with parents, students don’t buy in either.

In my mind, much of the frustration in education today is based on not feeling heard. I know I oftentimes don’t feel heard when I have to administer test after test and complete different paperwork every week, without really understanding why I’m doing such work, and without feeling like I know how to apply this to my teaching. For me, it comes from a top-down approach to education. Both those who provide education services and those who fight for their rights to an education deserve a voice in the conversation.

When teachers feel they have a voice and are heard, they can do wonders. Vilson and others spoke about the importance of treating teachers as professionals, like they know what they’re doing! As Vilson said, schools succeed with teachers of all ages, teachers who are open to new methods, veteran teachers sharing their experiences, not through de-professionalizing education.

I think everything comes down to trust, in all aspects of the education system. From administrators, teachers, principals, students, community members, boards of education, secretaries of education, we need to trust each other in order for us to work together. And we need to put our kids first.

As I saunter around this summer, planning for the upcoming school year, I’m going to focus on my role in advancing social justice in education. Social justice starts from something very basic: hearing from everyone, especially those who aren’t often heard. It’s important to have an anti-testing, anti-corporate movement in education, but it’s also important to make sure those who are at the mercy of such reforms, those who have been and are marginalized, are those who are heard through these conversations. It can be hard for teachers to incorporate that social justice mindset in their classrooms. It can be especially hard as a special education teacher, when most of my students have speech and language impediments due to disabilities. But, I know when my students actually say what they mean, whether through augmentative communication systems, picture cards, one to three word utterances, or scripts and songs, they actually feel invested in building something in the classroom with me. If I’m going to be like Ms. Sheridan or Mrs. Yee, then I have to listen. That’s the way to build critically conscious and aware citizens in our country. And that is how trust is built … one step at a time.

Annie Tan PictureAnnie Tan is a special education teacher in Chicago Public Schools. While building up her teaching, Annie is also working with many other teachers, activists, and community members to fight for voice in Chicago.

VIVA Teacher Speaks Out on Chicago Teachers Union’s Common Core Vote

Freeda Pirillis, a first grade teacher in Chicago Public Schools, was a member of the very first VIVA Idea Exchange, Voices from the Classroom. For the last three years, she has been working with the Chicago Teachers Union to develop Common Core curricula.

As she describes in this story on Chicago Public Radio, she was stunned to learn union delegates had voted to oppose the standards.

Chicago Teachers Union votes to oppose Common Core (by Linda Lutton, WBEZ 91.5, May 8, 2014)

Freeda said she understands the frustrations her colleagues have with how Common Core is being implemented. (Read her blog post, Implementing the Common Core State Standards: Too Little Too Soon, from last spring.). She is personally concerned about how the standards can and will be applied to students who have special needs or are English Language Learners. And, of course, she wonders what will become of the considerable amount of work she has done with the union the past few years.

Instead of just “looking up,” let’s look at one another

By Jennifer Reinhardt

If you’ve been on social media channels lately, you’ve probably seen Gary Turk’s “Look Up” video, which urges us to put down our smartphones and engage with the people around us.

I admit that I am often guilty of this, choosing to beat the next level of Candy Crush (or not) instead of striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to me.

But, I think it’s a mistake to frame all types of online engagement as a cacophony of noise that distracts us from being “productive and present,” as the video would say, in our own lives.

Here at New Voice Strategies, we strive to create authentic relationships that propel policy change by cultivating trust between our members and partners. And we do so primarily through online tools.

I’ve never met face-to-face most of the teachers and community leaders whom I am honored and humbled to work with. I don’t have to; technology offers us a powerful platform from which to support, connect, promote, and learn from one another.

Here are three recent examples that highlight our online community coming together to identify key issues and take action:

1) After an online discussion about how housing issues affect students, and how teachers can take leadership roles to advocate for change, Julie Miller Hays (Anoka, Minn.) attended the Urban Institute’s “How Housing Matters” roundtable in Washington, D.C., in April. She was the only teacher representative on the panel.

2) Fellow educators Ahngelique Davis (Philadelphia, Pa.) and Lesley Hagelgans (Union City, Mich.) are currently forming a research cohort among VIVA Leaders to promote scalable research models across school districts and create a pipeline for teacher-led research and articles.

3) In conjunction with Jose Vilson’s (New York, N.Y.) new book This is Not a Test, a collection of essays about race, class, and teaching, “with a mix of research and first-hand experience,” we’re exploring ways to engage our members around social justice issues in the classroom and beyond. If you are interested in hosting a community event or participating in a book discussion, let us know!

We believe what distinguishes our VIVA community is how we elevate one another and put teacher voice front and center in our dialogue.

As we continue to build our engagement programs, we would love to hear your feedback or suggestions. Please share success stories from within your district, or let us know if you would like to join or form an action group around a particular issue.


jennJennifer Reinhardt is New Voice Strategies’ engagement program manager. She works through the VIVA Leadership Center to design, implement and lead strategic campaigns around practitioner-identified issues.

VIVA Teacher Leaders in Chicago Call for ISAT Boycott

By Adam Heenan

ice-the-isatEarlier 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.

You can learn more about the ISAT boycott at More than a Score and Common Dreams.

AHeenanAdam Heenan teaches social science at Curie Metropolitan High School. He participated in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange and is a member of the VIVA Leadership Center.