Should kids be allowed to skip standardized tests? In Illinois, children already have the right to refuse to take, for example, the PARCC test, associated with Common Core. Last year, the number of children who exercised that right amounted to 4.4 percent of eligible students statewide.
That may sound like an insignificant number, but consider this: The previous year, just one half of one percent of eligible students in Illinois opted out.
The PARCC test has amplified a backlash against standardized tests that had been brewing for years, resulting in this opt-out movement.
In Chicago Public Schools, about 10 percent of students skipped tests last year. In New Jersey, it was 15 percent; in New York, 20 percent. Across the nation, parents have formed support groups to teach each other how to opt out. State Representative Will Guzzardi, a Chicago Democrat, is sponsoring legislation that would make it easier.
Witnesses who have testified at a series of hearings on Guzzardi's bill have included parents of special needs children who had to choose between taking a test they couldn't handle or, if they refused, having to sit idle for hours at a time. Some schools have adopted a "sit and stare" policy to deprive students who opt out of any meaningful activity.
Why these extreme measures? The federal Department of Education requires school districts to test 95 percent of students. It’s an accountability tool dating back to the Civil Rights era, meant to ensure that teachers are teaching and students -- all students -- are learning. Failure to meet that 95 percent threshold could result in the loss of millions of dollars in federal funds. It hasn’t happened to any district so far, but those with high opt-out rates are under investigation.
Guzzardi’s bill would provide families with an opt-out request form, and require schools to offer enrichment activities for students who choose not to participate in testing. The Illinois State Board of Education is on record as opposing Guzzardi’s bill, and parents who have tried to help their children opt out of testing report no sympathy from the state board.
Most students with autism or other disabilities have an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, that specifies what accommodations will be made for them at school. Often, the accommodation for high-stakes testing is a time extension. Violeta Gerue, who testified at last week's hearing, later told me her son gets an extra 30 minutes. But when he opts out, that extra half hour simply prolongs the time he has to sit and stare.
What muddies the issue is that some families opt out purely as a protest against PARCC -- the controversial new standardized test that aligns with the Common Core learning standards. When the test rolled out in the spring of 2015, it was about 10 hours long, and administered in two phases, taking up more class time than any other standardized test (it has since been scaled back). Guzzardi’s bill, sponsored by William Delgado in the Senate, doesn’t even mention PARCC, but lawmakers at last week’s hearing knew that’s what inspired it.
"I just don't think this is the fix," says Senator Kimberly Lightford, a Democrat from Maywood. "Trying to get at the PARCC assessment as not being an effective tool is one thing. Opting parents and students out of taking the test is another. I think this isn't the way to get at the fix of PARCC."
Dave Luechtefeld, a Republican from Okawville, said he was surprised to find himself agreeing with Lightford.
"I don't think this is the answer to the problem," Luechtefeld said.
As a former teacher himself, Luechtefeld was skeptical of the whole notion of letting families pick and choose what tests their kids take.
Last week’s hearing ended with the bill being sent to another committee. It will be heard again today. But Guzzardi says no matter what the legislature does or doesn’t do, students will continue to opt out of testing.