Why one CPS Mom and Educator is Refusing the Test for her Kids

Guest Blog post by Cecily Relucio Hensler

As an educator committed to the struggle for education justice, I grapple with the contradiction of also being a parent who plays into the game of the two-tiered education system.  My two daughters attend a school with a high performance rating, and they benefit daily from the autonomy that comes along with that standing.  The school is also well-resourced, and therefore can respond to the needs and challenges that arise.  Our school is not subject to the harsh penalties faced by principals, teachers, and parents in under-resourced schools, located in communities already subject to unjust public policies and practices that reinforce racial and economic inequality.  My family and I believe that our privilege comes with a responsibility to combat these inequities, and opting out from standardized testing is one way in which we can participate in the larger struggle against corporate-driven, market-based educational reform agendas.  As an educator, I know that standardized testing does not prepare my children to achieve academically.  Student-centered curriculum, instruction, and assessment does, and the inordinate amount of time spent on standardized testing is robbing our children of those opportunities.  Our school leaders and teachers have been supportive of families that exercise our right to opt-out.  Not being subjected to fear-based, compliance-oriented tactics (such as “sit-and-stare,” or letters home convincing us that our children have to take the tests) is yet another privilege that we have.  This has made our decision to opt-out much easier.

Having been a CPS classroom teacher before No Child Left Behind was in full effect, it’s frightening to see how dramatically the educational landscape has shifted in a relatively short period of time.  In my work over the last ten years as a teacher educator and professional developer, I see the tremendous pressures placed upon school leaders, teachers, and students, and how the overemphasis and misuse of standardized testing has distorted the vision and practice of teaching and learning.  Social studies and science have been pushed aside in order to focus on tested subjects.  Students and teachers are being reduced to numbers.  High-stakes standardized testing dominates almost every conversation about teaching and learning--especially in schools that operate under extremely challenging, and frankly, inhumane, conditions.  Before NCLB, standardized test data was considered just one of several measures of the quality of education of our young people.  The punitive rhetoric of high-stakes accountability has seeped its way into the public consciousness, and we are being conditioned to view high-stakes standardized testing as the best or only way to measure “effectiveness.”

I think it’s time for us to move beyond the common sense rhetoric, and to ask a different set of questions.  Who is really driving, and benefitting from, the policy agendas of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top?  Why are billions of public tax dollars being funneled into the hands of private investors?  What are the research findings on the efficacy and impact of the policies and practices of NCLB and RttT?  What are the trade-offs and (un)intended consequences--who and what is being harmed by these policies and their ripple effects?  Have competition-based educational reforms moved us toward or away from an educational system centered on the belief that education is human right for all children, not a privilege reserved for those with the most access and resources?

While I believe that a mass opting-out movement is needed to raise awareness and send a powerful message to the Department of Education, policymakers, and civic leaders, I also understand the complexity involved in these decisions, and that opting-out is not a strategy for everyone.  There are so many ways to get involved in the movement against high-stakes standardized testing and to advocate for a well-rounded education for all children.  Listen to what our children, teachers, and school leaders are saying about the on-the-ground impact of high-stakes standardized testing.  Provide teachers with the resources they need to support over-tested, stressed-out students.  Ask administrators and district leaders about standardized test data and how it is being used.  Get informed about the limitations of the PARCC exams.  Learn about research-based, proven assessment practices that are the alternative to standardized testing.  Pay close attention to what is happening with the upcoming reauthorization of NCLB and voice your concerns to your legislators.  Support--by donating your time and/or resources--local and national organizations such as Raise Your Hand, More Than a Score, FairTest, and United Opt Out National.  FairTest’s Opting Out page is one quick and easy way to find out how to get started.  

I urge parents to get and stay engaged in advocating for our own children, for the well-being of school communities, and for community-based public education.  Another system is possible, and collectively we can all contribute to building it.

Cecily Relucio Hensler is the co-director of the Chicago Grassroots Curriculum Taskforce.  Her children attend a Chicago Public School, and she is former CPS teacher.  Cecily is the former director of elementary teacher preparation at the University of Chicago's Urban Teacher Education Program.  She also worked for the New Teacher Center as an instructional coach, professional developer, and program development consultant for new teacher induction programs in Chicago, at the state level, and across the Midwest.