Why the testing revolt matters

March 4, 2014

Chicago teachers taking a stand against pointless standardized tests deserve a gold star, explains Bob Simpson.

ACROSS THE wide 24th Boulevard in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood you could hear the chants: "Let us teach...Let us teach...Let us teach!"

It was the frigid late afternoon of February 28, and the sounds were coming from the steps of Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy. Parents, teachers, students and community allies were rallying to show their support for Saucedo's boycott of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT).

Earlier that week, Saucedo teachers, with the urging of school parents, had voted unanimously not to give the test. The endless procession of standardized tests that take up valuable instruction time had pushed the Saucedo school community past the limit of its patience. Teachers didn't want to go to work and follow a regimen they knew was harmful to children. And parents didn't want that either. A natural alliance came into being.

The late Maria Saucedo was a highly respected bilingual educator working in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood who was active in groups like Casa Atzlán and Mujeres Latinas. As an honors student at Northeastern Illinois University, she helped found the Chicano Student Union. She was killed in a fire in 1981.

Community activists speak in support of teachers at Saucedo who voted to boycott the ISAT
Community activists speak in support of teachers at Saucedo who voted to boycott the ISAT (Bob Simpson | SW)

The Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy community is carrying on her life's work of social and education justice.

SAUCEDO SPECIAL education teacher Sarah Chambers opened the rally by announcing that Saucedo did not stand alone: "We've received e-mails, photos, calls from Montana, from California, from New York, from all over the country. We have people supporting us for taking a stand."

The rally added to the general revolt against testing abuse in Chicago and across the nation. Spirits at the Saucedo rally were buoyed when word spread that Drummond Montessori on the city's North Side had joined the boycott. This was in addition to the 67 schools where parents were opting out of the test on an individual basis.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett had already threatened to revoke the state certificate of any teacher who refuses to administer the ISAT. "People who threaten are cowards," said Chambers, "because they are afraid of the teachers, the students, of the parents and of the community joining together and rising up."

Chambers went on to ask why anyone would want to revoke teaching certificates because what the boycotting teachers want is to teach, not spend days administering a meaningless test.

Teachers and parents opting out of the testing are being supported by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, with CTU President Karen Lewis saying in a YouTube video: "The ISAT is an unjust, unnecessary test. Everybody knows that. We're not even going to use it next year. There are no stakes attached."

Zerlina Smith, a parent at Saucedo, linked testing abuse to larger issues, saying: "School should not be used as a number--or a dollar amount--on our kids' heads. They are trying to force our African American and Latino babies into taking these tests so they can determine which schools to close."

She linked school closings to the displacement of residents in already deprived communities and to the laying off of qualified educators.

Veteran education activist Windy Pearson also spoke about school closings, saying, "Our communities are being devastated, and...in the process there is now an understanding that testing is not the answer to the problems that are occurring."

POVERTY IS the biggest enemy of quality education in Chicago. Chicago's corporate elite, which pushes standardized testing, also favors disinvestment in minority and working-class communities, exacerbating the very problems that deeply concern people like Windy Pearson.

In characteristic fashion, the titular leader of Chicago education spread what they call in the computer world: FUD. FUD stands for "Fear, uncertainty, doubt." The idea was for Byrd-Bennett to threaten retaliation so that parents and teachers would retreat, too frightened or confused to take action.

At the Saucedo rally, I spoke with a retired CPS teacher about the pervasive fear that exists and how important seemingly small individual or local actions can be for breaking though that fear.

Remember, this is Chicago, where retaliation can come in very unsubtle ways and in the not-too-distant past could even mean violence. It is a city largely ruled by fiat from the mayor's office with backing by powerful financial interests. People who present promising ideas about education are routinely ignored by the unelected school board, leaving protest and civil disobedience as the only means to influence policy.

Byrd-Bennett began sending out a series of misleading letters and public statements starting December 20. The December letter announced the demise of the ISAT but trumpeted the Northwest Education Association (NWEA) exam. Byrd-Bennett warned darkly that opting out of the NWEA exam could mean that "your child's future could be negatively impacted," implying that a student could be held back from grade level advancement.

The December letter had the opposite effect of what was intended. It angered many parents, and opposition grew, as evidenced by community forums across the city. More parents were considering opting out. Then came another letter on January 29. Byrd-Bennett stated that students who opted out of the NWEA exams would not be considered for selective-enrollment high schools or grade promotion for grades 3, 6 and 8.

She also said that even if the ISAT was being phased out, it was still required for measuring the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Yet as CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey explained, most schools in Illinois do not meet AYP goals, and even Education Secretary Arne Duncan largely ignores No Child Left Behind.

The situation became even more uncertain as principals gave out contradictory and sometimes inaccurate information to parents. But opposition continued to grow, especially against the ISAT.

Then came Byrd-Bennett's infamous February 28 letter to principals with its threats of disciplinary action against teachers refusing to administer the test:

The Chicago Board of Education will discipline any employee who encourages a student not to take the ISAT or who advocates against the ISAT on work time for insubordination and for any disruption of the educational process.

Her stand was backed up by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. "She made the right call," said Emanuel. "The only person who can pull somebody out is not a teacher, but a parent." This was a weird thing to say considering the threats made to parents about the future of their children.

FUD indeed.

TODAY'S STANDARDIZED tests are descended from the unscientific IQ tests of the early 20th century, which were used to cement racial, ethnic and social-class discrimination. Despite the modern alphabet soup of ISAT, MAP, PARCC, NWEA, SAT and the rest, they have not evolved much, though they have become more become pervasive and more profitable.

They do not measure independent thinking, creative imagination, curiosity, social skills and the counter-intuitive reasoning necessary to understand that what may appear obvious is often misleading. The tests are clueless when it comes to measuring the complexity of the human mind and its ability to change and develop.

Standardized testing encourages rigid, scripted, teach-to-the-test curricula devoid of educational exploration. The human element that makes great teaching and engaged learning is ruthlessly crushed like so much scrap metal in a junkyard compactor. No student was ever motivated to become an eager lifelong learner by taking a mind-numbing battery of tests. Now they are being inflicted on kindergarten and pre-kindergarten children.

Have we lost our minds?

But standardized tests do measure one thing with reasonable accuracy: the amount of poverty in a working-class community. Ironically, the lower test scores in impoverished areas are then used as further justification for more testing, more scripted curricula and more school privatization. Meanwhile in corporate offices far, far away, cash registers are constantly beeping.

Must I mention that poverty is heavily racialized in this country and that this form of insidious child abuse falls most heavily on children of color? And that public schools in high-poverty areas are most likely to lack libraries and laboratories, music and art, advanced science and world languages, quality textbooks and modern computers? Yet these schools still endure an endless parade of expensive testing, even as they are closed one by one and their funding is shifted over to privatization.

What about working-class communities that are less economically wounded? They are seeing their public education budgets reduced as standardized testing gallops on and privatization looms on the horizon.

The wealthy elite who push these tests are using young minds as experimental test subjects. Remain silent. Follow the rules without question. Don't look to your neighbor for help. Dutifully recall the isolated bits of data that were given to you as everyone else around you does exactly the same. And never ever let your mind wander in new directions that take you to the undiscovered or as yet uncreated.

Is this what we want for the next generation?

First published at Daily Kos.

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