Testing under fire from teachers union

November 7, 2013

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On the National Day Against Testing, the Chicago Teachers Union called on parents to "opt out" of standardized testing. At a press conference on Thursday, the union announced the launch of the “Let Us Teach” campaign, to not only urge parents to refuse to let their children take part in tests but also to call on CPS to stop giving any standardized exams to children in kindergarten through 2nd grade.

In addition, the CTU is telling its members to take action with the goal of curbing the time spent on testing-- ask parents to complain to CPS officials, file grievances regarding paperwork associated with tests and advocate to their principals that the number of tests be limited.

This is the first time that the union has participated in the National Day of Action On Testing, a campaign led by public school teachers in six major cities, including New York and Los Angeles, who want to limit the time spent on high-stakes testing.

CPS officials responded to CTU’s announcement by saying that district leaders have heard and responded to concerns about the over-testing of students. CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett announced last summer a change in the district’s assessment policy, cutting the number of required exams to the literacy assessments for primary grades, the annual state tests given in the spring and the assessments used for teacher evaluations.

In all, CPS officials said they eliminated 15 tests.

However, CTU President Karen Lewis said the change in policy has since been followed by the introduction of more benchmark performance assessments that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards that CPS is implementing. And while these tests may not be officially required, Lewis said that the network offices are pressuring schools to administer some of them.

CPS officials say that the Common Core exams must be given, but teachers can create their own and do not have to use those that the district provides. “For many schools, teachers collaborated over the summer to create an assessment that measured the skills taught within that unit,” according to a CPS official.   

CPS acknowledged that parents have the right to opt out, but they emphasized that these benchmarks and standardized tests give teachers information that will help them determine how to adjust their teaching. 

But Lewis said the benchmark assessments being pushed by the district are questionable. A school system that is already “budget challenged” shouldn’t be spending money on consultants and test prep materials that end up taking away from valuable classroom instructional time, she said.

“These tests are not used to inform instruction, but to rank schools and stigmatize school communities,” said Lewis.

Tara Mack, a parent at Peirce Elementary in Edgewater, said the back-and-forth between what is required and what is not required has added to the confusion for parents trying to navigate these tests. It “further erodes” the relationship between them and CPS, she said.

“There’s an absence of trust between parents and CPS,” Mack said. “I feel like I don’t know what they’re really doing surrounding this, and it makes parents feel like they have to be the expert.”

Lewis said parents need to know what tests are mandatory and how or whether they help their child. Some of the exams are “age-inappropriate,” she said. For example, it is not good to test young children using computer-based tests that get harder as the child progresses, she said. These types of tests are “horrendous,” especially for children as young as 5, Lewis said.

If a large enough group of parents opt out of standardized testing, it sends a message to district leaders and may push the district to make more dramatic changes.  Lewis pointed to New York City’s Castle Bridge School, a primary grades school that canceled its multiple-choice standardized tests after more than 80 percent of parents opted to have their children sit out of the exam.