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Esther Cepeda: Chicago at war over student testing

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Esther Cepeda
March 8, 2014

CHICAGO -- As education reform takes hold across the country, we find ourselves traveling through another dimension—one not only of hysterics but also of childish behavior. There's a signpost up ahead, our next stop: The Stupid Zone!

 I mock the absurdities that seemingly accompany every skirmish in the education revolution because the back-and-forths among teachers unions, education policymakers and parents on changes to how students and schools are assessed are as weird and disturbing as “The Twilight Zone.”

 The latest one in my hometown—over how the Chicago Public Schools district (CPS) reacted to teachers, parents and about 1,500 children at 80 schools who chose to boycott a soon-to-be-discontinued standardized test—is about as absurd as it gets.

 A little background first.

 There has been a movement by well-meaning parents and teachers to not only stem the tide of high-stakes standardized testing, but to try to disconnect the results of these exams from teacher and school evaluations. They argue that “teaching to the test” is a misuse of educational time, stresses children out (some call testing “abuse”) and is a poor indicator of student academic ability and teacher effectiveness.

 Along the way, they've convinced their children—and many others—that these tests are frightening, useless and bad for them, and urge students to simply skip them.

 As a former teacher and current mother of public school students, I couldn't disagree more with such wrongheaded ideas.

 Grade-level standardized tests are aligned with state learning expectations, so if teachers are “teaching to the test,” then students are practicing subject matter that has been deemed necessary for the successful completion of their grades.

 I've never once seen children stressed out by these supposedly trauma-inducing tests. As a first-grade and high-school teacher, and through careful observation of my sons' testing experience, I've overwhelmingly seen kids not mind missing their regular classes for grade-level tests. It's a change, they get treats to “boost” their performance and several days without homework.

 Lastly, schools generally do use the results of these tests to improve the curriculum, and some tests even help troubleshoot individual students' learning gaps.

 But though I believe standardized testing is essential, school districts across the country are doing a terrible job of being responsive to parents who disagree. That's a tremendous problem because schools need parents to feel heard and respected to ensure academic success.

 In Chicago, the Illinois Standard Achievement Test is being phased out and does not count toward grades, graduation or college admission.

 Those opposing too much testing asked parents and kids to skip it to send a message, and a few teachers decided to refuse to proctor it. The administrators at CPS responded by going to war.

 The superintendent threatened instructors with having their teaching licenses revoked if they didn't proctor the tests. But once the students opted out on test day, they were treated shabbily, according to news reports and press releases from groups associated with the Chicago Teachers Union.

 “The school administrations were completely unprepared for the number of students who opted out, and while some responded humanely, others did not,” Julie Fain, an organizer with an parent group against overtesting, “More Than a Score,” said in an interview. “Parents have told us that not only were they confronted angrily or harassed by school administrators about their choice, they've been lied to and their kids retaliated against in school.”

 The union and “More Than a Score” have alleged that some administrators erroneously told parents that their children would not be allowed to graduate, would be barred from Advanced Placement classes or would be forced to go to summer school.

 “They are clinging to an obsolete test with such enthusiasm because they want to force compliance. They want parents to do what they're told, sit down and shut up,” Fain said.

 It's no surprise that the hometown of pro-reform President Obama, his education secretary, Arne Duncan, and his right-hand man and Chicago's mayor, Rahm Emanuel, wants the test to be taken.

 But alienating parents and students isn't the way to do it. There are better, more collaborative ways to usher in school reforms, even on super hot-button issues. But they require open ears and respectful dialogues.

 Just as life itself is a high-stakes test, so are the politics of school reform, and Chicago schools' signpost up ahead reads “Failure.”

Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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