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Education

Chicagoans Offer Milwaukee Ideas about Boycotting or Opting Out of Standardized Tests

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While Wisconsin debates whether districts should administer the Smarter Balance Test, some voices insist schools are over-testing students.

Teachers and parents in Chicago have been toward the front of an anti-standardized test movement. Leaders Sarah Chambers and Matthew Luskin offered a workshop in Milwaukee this month, for a few dozen interested teachers and parents.

Chambers, a teacher in the Chicago public school system, says the school year is loaded with standardized tests, and each one can wipe out a week or weeks of instruction time.

“The decision when I said, enough is enough, we need to build a mass movement and build this boycott, (was when) I saw one of my students pluck out all of his eyebrows during a test,” Chambers says.

Chamber says, as she began talking with parents, she realized many had no idea how many standardized tests their kids took, or that they could opt-out. She says she began collecting information on the facts and eventually organized a huge distribution of material to students and parents, including at her school.

"Within a week, we had 60% of our students opting out, which in previous years, we had zero."

The movement swelled to a boycott at her school. Teachers refused to give an Illinois standardized test to students.

"If we don't do anything, these tests are going to be out of control. They're going to ultimately use these test scores to close our schools, privatize them," Chambers said.

Chambers says administrators and city leaders threatened to discipline the teachers, but so far, that has not happened. Matthew Luskin says too many parents have come on board.

"It really did create a situation where the board of education couldn't discipline (the teachers) not because they didn't have the right to but because the backlash against it would have been so significant," Luskin said.

Luskin is an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union and has three kids in the public system there. He says small informal meetings around the city of teachers and parents have created an influential constituency.

MPS teachers Tiffany Zwolinski, Reggie Jackson and Christina Lopez listened to the presentation. They agreed afterward, that standardized testing has gone too far.

"What's wrong with the system is that students are missing out on their services, their rights to being served for whatever needs they have. I just think it's completely unfair to them. I am not concerned about myself, I'll get through what I need to get through, but when I seem them struggling in their classroom, it's just heartbreaking," Zwolinski said.

"When I looked at our testing calendar they have us at the beginning of the year, we have 36 weeks in the school year, 20 to 24 of those weeks included testing," Jackson said.

"My third grade bilingual students take 22 different standardized tests throughout the year. They're not worried about the things that an eight or nine year old child normally worries about. They're worrying about whether or not they're going to pass to the next grade," Lopez said.

The few parents in attendance expressed most concern about repeated testing of kids as young as age five.

The February workshop was part of a larger event the group Schools and Communities United and the MTEA held at MATC.

Meanwhile, some Wisconsin leaders continue debating whether school districts here should use the Smarter Balance Test. It's aligned to Common Core - new national standards spelling out what skills students should possess by the end of each grade. Gov. Walker is recommending that districts use different tests.