As a Test Gets Phased Out In Chicago, Some Boycott Its Final Year

In Chicago, a boycott has begun to protest the extent of standardized testing. Parents and teachers are saying that a recent test is useless, so hundreds are opting out or refusing to administer it.

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It's testing time in Illinois today. Hundreds of thousands of students began taking state tests in math and science but some students, parents, even teachers are refusing. At dozens of schools in Chicago, they're staging a boycott, saying the tests don't matter. As NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, it's part of a growing national debate over measuring student performance.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Boycott the ISAT. Let things be. Boycott the ISAT.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: For a couple of days, chanting parents, students and teachers braved the cold in Chicago and gathered on the steps of Saucedo Elementary School. They were the first among parents and teachers to announce their intentions to boycott the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, commonly called the ISAT. It's an annual test for students in third through eighth grade.

SARAH CHAMBERS: We already have over 500 opt-out letters from parents.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right.

CORLEY: Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher, says that number is growing and now includes parents and students at more than 70 schools throughout the city. She also says, Saucedo teachers voted unanimously to not administer the test to students.

CHAMBERS: We're sick of watching them just fill in bubbles when we truly want to make them critical thinkers. We want to make them artists. We want to make them able to voice their opinions. And these standardized tests do not do that.

CORLEY: It's an awkward year for schools. The ISAT is being phased out and will be replaced next year by another based on the new common course standards that most states have adopted. So, this year's ISAT scores won't be used for school or teacher ratings or to promote students. Parents like Zerlina Smith(ph), who sits on Saucedo's local school council, says the district should have just dumped the test.

ZERLINA SMITH: If they're going to discontinue the test next year, what's the purpose of putting our kids through so much stress?

CORLEY: In Chicago, there are more than 170,000 students with their number two yellow pencils taking the achievement exam. John Barker, the accountability chief for the Chicago schools, says there's no way around it because the federal No Child Left Behind law requires the state to give it. And he says, this year's ISAT is a preview of what's to come.

JOHN BARKER: But even more than that, this provides the first ever opportunity for our students to see and know more about what the Common Core aligned test looks like.

CORLEY: But it's a tug of war now as the Chicago schools and parent groups, supported by the Chicago Teachers Union, battle the over the validity of taking the test.

Pedro Noguera, a professor of education and sociology at New York University, says the boycott is a part of a growing trend. Last year, teachers at a Seattle high school refused to administer a test mandated by the school district. Noguera says it's a backlash prompted by a weariness over the number of standardized tests and frustration over how they are used.

PEDRO NOGUERA: I mean, typically, test kids in the spring and then we give the teachers the results in the fall, when they don't even have the students. So the idea of using the test to diagnose the students' learning needs is lost.

CORLEY: Chicago school officials say results from next year's Common Core test, which students will take on computers, should come much faster. But for now, it's a conundrum as the school district gives a test it says it must and some students opt out with their parents' approval. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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