Chicago Sun-Times: Calls for opt-out bill continue as Illinois starts PARCC test

http://chicago.suntimes.com/news-chicago/7/71/426899/calls-opt-bill-continue-illinois-starts-parcc

By Lauren Fitzpatrick

March 9, 2015

Citing confusion and frustration at the rollout of the new PARCC test — given for the first time in Illinois on Monday — Chicago legislators and some parents called for support for a bill that would clarify how schools would treat children whose parents don’t want them to take the test.

PARCC testing began Monday in some Chicago Public Schools and will continue for the next four weeks. More than a million students statewide are expected to take the new test of common core state standards. About 230,000 CPS students will be given the test but the district couldn’t say how many were scheduled for the first day — nor how many refused.

Illinois does not recognize a parent’s right to opt their children out of the testing, though the Illinois State Board of Education acknowledges that children may refuse to take the exam once it’s presented to them.

No major snafus were reported in the city or on the state level, although Mollison and Morrill elementary schools had some minor glitches, district spokesman Bill McCaffrey said. Otherwise CPS reported a “smooth start to testing,” he said, “with the exception of some minor tech issues, such as popup blockers.”

The parent group Raise Your Hand took lots of calls about how children and their parents were treated when they decided against taking the test. A charter school told parents they would lose a technology reimbursement if children opted out. Some schools also required a letter from parents.

“We’ve heard from dozens of parents . . . throughout Chicago and all of our neighborhoods, each one with a different message on how their students can refuse PARCC,” Brenda Delgado, a Bronzeville mother of three CPS students and Raise Your Hand board member, said Monday at a press conference about an opt-out bill sponsored by State Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago). “What we need is clarity, and we need consistent policy, which is why we need HB 306, which is why we need a parent opt-out bill.

“PARCC is designed to show the majority of students are failing their academic standards. Our children are not failures. This test is failing our students. It is not ready to be used this year,” she said.

Students at Chicago Virtual Charter School were told they would lose their technology reimbursement of between $150 to $180 if they refused to take the PARCC test. That chunk of money is disbursed twice a year to the school’s families that qualify for free and reduced lunch, said Cristina Nolan, who has four children at the school.

“Internet is required for students to do their daily schoolwork,” Nolan said. “One of the families absolutely relies on the payment to pay their monthly Internet bill. That mother wanted to opt out all four children out of the test. If she opts out she will not receive the second of the two yearly reimbursements for the Internet. The mother had no choice but to rescind her opt out request.

“Her children will be taking the PARCC test. She doesn’t want them to take the PARCC test,” Nolan said.

Reached by telephone about the policy, Chicago Virtual Charter School director Amy Biasbas said she was in a meeting and would call back. As of early Monday evening, she had not.

In the absence of a state policy for children who refuse, district leaders and principals have been given wide berth on what to do with students on testing days.

Throughout Illinois, the results of this year’s Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career test are being used as a baseline, not for any high-stakes reason.

Chicago parents have responded strongly because, unlike the rest of the state, city students also must take a second test this spring that counts toward student promotion, school ratings and teacher evaluations, the NWEA MAP test. The group More Than A Score is collecting information on their website about where children are refusing.

Blaine Elementary School’s PTA encouraged parents to opt their children out so the testing time of up to 10 hours per child could be spent learning instead, and 71 percent of Blaine students had refused as of Monday, according to Blaine Principal Troy LaRaviere.

LaRaviere added on his personal blog that that he believed parents should not just opt out of PARCC but should also “shut it down.”

That went too far for Steve McKenzie, father of fifth-grade twins at Blaine who are going to take the test. The children were asked to raise their hands in classes to be counted among those testing and were handed fliers at school entrances by PTA members last week, McKenzie said. On Sunday night, his daughter began to cry, saying she was confused about PARCC.

“This principal and these PTA people have bullied my children and I think that’s inappropriate,” McKenzie said. “I’m an adult, I can take it, but when it gets to that level, shame on them.”

Guzzardi’s opt-out bill passed out of committee in Springfield and awaits a full vote in the House. He didn’t have a timeline but hoped he could gather the 60 needed votes by the end of April, before PARCC’s second testing window opens in May.

“Parents are frustrated with this exam and right now under the current rules all their parents can do is tell their students to go to school and tell them to refuse the test,” Guzzardi said Monday, flanked by two other North Side representatives, Jaime M. Andrade Jr. and Ann. The bill would let parents write a letter before testing and would direct schools to provide some quiet educational activities for those children.

State Board of Education spokeswoman Mary Fergus said her agency opposed the opt-out bill and has testified against it.

“We want to see how well all students are doing and if they’re meeting these higher standards so they’re on track for college and career. Right now, only 25 percent of students meet all four of the ACT’s college readiness benchmarks,” Fergus said.

“Remember that we hope that districts will be able to use the PARCC for instructional purposes and reduce the number of other tests they give students,” she said.

Though parents in Illinois may opt their children out of other state requirements — such as vaccines and sex education — none of those programs is federally mandated, Fergus said.