Springfield Journal-Register: Bill would allow students to opt out of state tests

http://www.sj-r.com/article/20150424/NEWS/150429637

By Kerry Lester, The Associated Press

April 24, 2015

As new standardized tests tied to the Common Core standards spark debate around the country, the Illinois legislature is considering a bill that lays out exactly how students can opt out of the state assessments.

Democratic Rep. Will Guzzardi's measure, backed by the Chicago Teachers Union, would amend the school code to allow students to choose not to take the test if they have a request in writing from a parent or guardian.

The legislation comes after Chicago Public Schools initially refused to implement the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests in all of its schools and the Illinois State Board of Education threatened to withhold its funding. CPS ultimately administered the tests.

Though the tests are considered mandatory, many students around the state still are not taking them as critics question their difficulty and real benefit to students, as well as if the data collected from them will ultimately be useful.

More than a Score, a community group opposed to what it calls excessive standardized testing in Chicago Public Schools, says students in more than 80 of the city's schools have declined to take the test. School officials in the Chicago suburbs have also reported that hundreds of students are not taking the tests, focusing instead on taking college readiness exams, like the ACT. Some Springfield area schools have also reported large numbers of students declining to take the tests.

The PARCC tests are tied to the Common Core, academic standards that have been adopted by the vast majority of states. The tests focus on English, language arts and math, are given to third and eighth graders and high school students, and replace the Illinois Standards Achievement Test and the Prairie State Achievement Exam, which included the ACT. The State Board of Education says the new tests are designed to determine how students apply critical thinking to real-world issues, as well as test their mastery of content.

Guzzardi said students aren't taking the test anyway, and his legislation simply provides a clear path for opting out.

"They're doing it right now today," he said. "The only thing that this bill will change is to create clear, concise rules about how that will happen."

Meanwhile, Gov. Bruce Rauner's education secretary warns that the bill could increase the number of students not taking the tests and could prompt the loss of as much as $1 billion annually in federal funding.

In a memo to lawmakers this week, Beth Purvis noted that the state has entered an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education that it will test 95 percent of public school students in third through eighth grade and high schools in order to receive funding for low-income students. Purvis said a reduction in federal funding for the state is a possible consequence of not meeting that threshold.

"While this administration understands concerns that parents, educators and lawmakers have about how students are evaluated, (this bill) is the wrong vehicle through which to address these issues and has the potential to significantly disrupt the education of Illinois' children," Purvis wrote.

Still, Guzzardi called the administration's position on the issue "preposterous" and said he believed the loss of federal funding wouldn't occur, as states have not yet been financially penalized.

Rauner's office has been actively lobbying against the legislation's passage, while the Chicago Teachers Union sent an email blast Thursday encouraging members to call their legislators to support the bill.

"The bill provides parents and schools with a clear procedure for opting out of mandated assessments ... that waste valuable instructional time and resources and provide no clear benefit for students, parents and teachers," the message read.