Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Culture of Testing at CPS (or Why I Opted Out)

Last year, I attended the Raise Your Hand coalition's community forum on the culture of testing at CPS. One outcome of the forum was More Than A Score, a newish coalition of parents who are concerned about the number of tests and assessments given in CPS as well as the purpose of the testing itself.
Last year, each of RYH's five panelists talked about his or her experience and opinions on learning and standardized testing, and then they responded to questions and comments from the audience. Noah Sobe, a professor of Cultural and Education Policy at Loyola University, spoke about the history of standardized testing, the myth or misconception that American education has "always" used tests as a gauge of teaching or learning. What we've lost in creating this culture of testing is the definition of what we want our schools to do for our children, what we want our children to learn in the process of their education. He also pointed out the differences amongst (1) teacher-designed assessment, which he said is a critical part of teaching, (2) standardized testing, and (3) high-stakes testing.

Later in the evening, there were "breakout" sessions of things we could do to prevent or arrest the standardized test momentum within CPS. That assumes that all of the attendees were there for a common purpose.  We were not. As Wendy Katten acknowledged in her opening remarks, forum attendees had different reasons for being there: (1) to gain clarity in our understanding of standardized tests; (2) to learn or understand the impact of standardized tests on our students and the system; (3) to learn how to opt your children out of standardized testing at their CPS schools.  I really only have two problems with testing and assessments. The first is the use of student growth or progress as a way to evaluate teachers. The second is testing that doesn't have a clear, demonstrable point: when data is not recognizably useful to students, parents, teachers, the school, or the District. For me, this year's ISATs are a perfect example of a test that doesn't produce useful data. I opted my children out of the test this year. I want to be clear that this wasn't a decision I made alone, or in a vacuum, or without the input and counsel of others I trust and who are knowledgeable about such things.  First, in late January, I asked our principal for information on this year's ISATs, their import to both the school and my children, and her take on things. Dear readers, she was not surprised that I was asking, nor that I had a  fair bit of necessary background information on this. Our principal, like everyone else, I suspect, is somewhat used to me being the Person with the Questions. Not surprisingly, and also not to her detriment, she didn't convince me that the soon-to-be-obsolete AYP measure was enough reason to have my children take the test. 

Then I had a serious and ongoing debate of the merits of this particular test in this particular instance at length with The Dad. The Dad's arguments for taking the ISAT were that it's good practice. Um, for what? Boredom? Waiting? Standardized tests? They have the NWEA and the STEP tests already; The Boy also took the now-defunct Scantron test; how much practice for standardized testing do they need? Also, the ISAT is a pencil-and-paper-scored-bubble-test; the only other  pencil-and-paper-scored-bubble test in the distant horizon is the ACT and it's distance doesn't provide enough reason to take the last year of the ISAT.

I also thought about the results of the test. The Boy has two years of ISATs under his belt already, so it might be interesting to see how he scored comparatively this year compared to previous years. But the state messed around with the cut scores in 2013, and changed the test again in 2014; I couldn't muster enough support for this particular argument. There was even less of an argument for The Girl to take the ISAT for its ultimate and her inaugural year. 

Reaching for straws for reasons to justify spending 5 hours taking a test that didn't appear to have much meaning, I put it to the would-be test-takers themselves: I asked the kids. I laid down the pros and cons with them, letting them each know that there was no penalty either way. The Girl said, "Let me think about it." Then she came back and said, "No thank you." In preparation for the post, I asked her what went through her mind when making her decision. She said, "It's not going to be all math." (Some performance anxiety about reading comprehension there.) And "it's just like NWEA: test bubbles. I don't need any practice on test bubbles."  The Boy also wanted to think it over, but reached a similar conclusion to that of his sister: he'd rather have an extra hour of "sustained silent reading," to borrow a phrase from one of child lit's favorite characters/authors (Ramona Quimby, Beverly Cleary). 
And so, I made the decision to opt my children out of this year's ISAT, submitting a hard copy letter stating such to our principal and my children's classroom teachers. That I had reached this conclusion surprised no one within the building.  I was and remain open about this decision, and have fielded a fair number of questions about it. So here's my own little FAQ about the opt-out process:

Q. Will you opt out of next year's PARCC? Probably not, but it depends on the read about it I get from teachers and admin at school. For me, opting out of the ISAT this year is really a no-brainer. There is no point to this test this year, and the school doesn't really use the results for anything. I've heard from The TWN's teacher that she likes NWEA and other teachers like STEP as assessments because the data can be useful to good teaching practice. I've never heard a teacher say that about the ISAT.
Q. Who do you think is going to teach your kids while everyone else takes the ISAT?
Not everyone or every class takes the ISATs. I am confident that school staff will find something suitable for my kids to do every day for the 45-60 minutes it takes for the ISAT.  Q. Why not just keep your kids home during the testing period? 
I am not keeping my kids home for 7 hours each day because 45-60 minutes of the day will be spent taking the ISAT. Perhaps my kids can be helpers in younger classrooms (leadership), work on school auction projects (funding), D.E.A.R. (literacy), participate in another grade's art class (especially important because my 5th grader doesn't get art this year - integration*), complete homework (independent study), troubleshoot and do computer maintenance (5th grader's elective/technology). All of these are appropriate uses of time and provide opportunities for learning. 
Q. Will you also opt your kids out of the selective enrollment testing?
I have two things to say on this subject. The first is that opting my kids out of the ISAT this year has never been an objection to all testing and assessments. The second is that I am letting my kids opt themselves into that testing if they want to pursue admission to a selective enrollment school. They have a few viable options for high school; if they want to go for the gold of the SE process in Chicago, I will encourage and support them, but at this point, I am not willing to push or nudge them into that direction. 

* The explanation for this basically comes down to (a) budget cuts and (b) prioritization of student choice over 6 enrichment classes in a 5-day week. 

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