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.

Xian Barrett’s letter to the editor in the Chicago Sun-Times

Xian Barrett, Chicago VIVA teacher who was honored at the CPS Board meeting for his work on the 49 recommendations for the longer school day, says “listen to the people who know how to fix things–teachers, parents, and students (download).”



Longer school day — do it right

Letter to Editor from VIVA Teacher Leader Kori Milroy, Chicago Sun-Times

A Sun-Times story on Dec. 13 had this headline: “Is daily recess a ‘human right’ for school kids?” I believe it is. Currently, children in some Chicago Public Schools enter their elementary classrooms in the morning and, except for a brief 20-minute lunch break, remain seated in the same room for the entire day. Not only does this make for a less than exciting day for students, it negatively affects their health, classroom behavior, and academic achievement.

As part of the Chicago VIVA Project, I just helped write the report outlining the recommendations of CPS teachers for how classroom time can best be used to improve student learning. Our report recommends increasing instructional time for math, language arts, science, and social studies, the core academic classes offered in elementary schools. But to truly maximize learning in these areas, we also recommend increasing time in ancillary classes. Research shows that art, music, library and P.E. show great promise for increasing academic achievement, while providing students with a fun, enriching school experience.

As a part of a 7.5 hour elementary school day, we recommend that students receive:

† Daily 20-minute recess period,

† 180 minutes per week of physical education instruction,

† 90 minutes per week of art instruction,

† 90 minutes per week of music instruction.

† 90 minutes per week of library or technology instruction.

These recommendations, if implemented, stand to have a lasting positive impact on a significant portion of Chicago’s population. It is well known that regular exercise helps in maintaining a healthy weight. Studies also show that it reduces stress and increases students’ ability to pay attention.

But how much is necessary? The USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both recommend 60 minutes of exercise per day for children and adolescents. The VIVA Teachers proposal would give Chicago’s students an average of 36 minutes of structured physical education per day, along with 20 minutes of free play at recess. This more than doubles the amount of exercise students currently receive.

Arts education, including music, is known to improve math scores. Recent research has also found that these areas of study actually stimulate cognitive growth and help students learn empathy and caring. Art and music improve motivation, providing a fun outlet for creative expression.

The length of the 2012-2013 school day hasn’t been chiseled in stone yet. But any discussion of a longer day should include planning how the time should best be spent. I hope that CPS will consider implementing the VIVA team’s recommendations, in an effort to improve learning and make a CPS school day something to look forward to for every student, in every school.

Kori Milroy, Dunning

VIVA takes on the Chicago Tribune

A Chicago Tribune editorial about the test cheating scandals and its recommendation that Chicago officials use precious education resources to investigate whether similar cheating occurred in Chicago merited a strong response from VIVA. Our letter appeared online on Aug. 10. Here’s what we said:

Your editorial of Aug. 4 has it exactly right about the cheating scandals in public schools, but you couldn’t be more wrong about the solution.

The image of teachers and administrators in Atlanta erasing students’ wrong answers and filling in the right bubble — and the prospect that someone at Chicago Public Schools might have done the same — is appalling. But the way to stop that sort of behavior is not to waste more of our precious education dollars investigating whether teachers and administrators in Chicago and elsewhere might have changed test answers or found even more creative ways to cheat on high stakes standardized test. The way to stop the cheating is to change the rules of the assessment game.

Rather than using one test to decide which schools are making grade, which teachers will keep their jobs and which administrators are effective leaders, we should be using a variety of measures over time. Not only does using several sources and multiple years of data provide a more accurate gauge of effectiveness, it makes it much harder to game the system.

That’s what the classroom teachers who joined the VIVA Project’s web-based teacher collaboration said and what VIVA teacher leaders wrote in a national report that was delivered to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and a New York state report delivered to the head of the New York Board of Regents. The full text of both reports is available on our website,

It is time policy makers, political leaders and the public listened to teachers, like our VIVA teachers, who care about their students. They understand the need for measuring learning, provided the measurements are fair.

— Elizabeth Evans, President, The VIVA Project, Chicago