By Michelle Gunderson.
We have a saying in the testing resistance movement – don’t feed the beast, starve the data monster. When parents opt their children out of testing they are taking a strong stance against having their children’s data used as a mechanism to sort students, punish teachers, and privatize our schools. When teachers decide to boycott testing – completely refusing to administer tests- they are taking testing resistance to a whole new level.
Last March teachers in Chicago launched a boycott of the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests (ISAT). The impetus for this boycott came from the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), the caucus currently in leadership at the Chicago Teachers Union. CORE voted to form a testing committee and to explore the possibility of a testing boycott in the fall on 2013. This was courageous, difficult, and deliberate work.
After carving this pathway in Chicago we felt it was important to share the process we produced, our successes, and lessons learned.
At the beginning of this process we all looked into our personal convictions and understandings of the harm caused by standardized tests. As with most work in CORE, we started with political and pedagogical framing. This statement from Tammie Vinson, one of the members of CORE’s testing committee, illustrates what our framing discussions sound like:
I feel that standardized tests are an instrument being used to destabilize public education, eliminate teacher tenure, and to fail students. As a special education teacher, I have seen the negative effect of forced testing on students who are not academically prepared for these tests. I have witnessed the stress and frustration it causes in students. As a black person, I know that these tests are a tool used to segregate and marginalize neighborhood schools and the residents of these communities.
The ISAT boycott was interwoven with a broader effort between parents and teachers to opt children out of testing. Letters were crafted, fliers created, and information sessions scheduled around the city. Then we began to search the political landscape for schools that would be ripe for a full scale boycott. There were two schools that seemed ready, Maria Saucedo Elementary and Drummond Montessori.
The CORE testing committee along with teachers from these schools developed a timeline for this work drawing on the experiences of others around the country that had organized successful testing boycotts.
- Connect with parent groups in the opt out movement
- Craft opt out letters and informational fliers
- Hold information sessions with parents
- Present testing opt out information at Local School Council meetings (Chicago’s version of local school boards)
- Student councils hold opt out debates
- Teachers send opt out letter home collectively on the same day
- Opt out letters returned and percentages calculated
- Teachers hold school wide vote to opt out
- Inform the media
- Solidarity campaign
- Analysis of boycott
When asked how she knew her school was ready to boycott, Sarah Chambers, Saucedo teacher and chair of the CORE testing committee said, “I knew my school was a strong school with structures in place from the strike and from our contract. We have a staff phone tree, personal email list serve, and strong union committees.”
Teachers at Saucedo held a vote to decide whether or not to boycott, but it is important to realize that parents and teachers worked together. “Most of the students were opted out even before teachers voted to boycott. This wasn’t teachers working in isolation – this was a whole community effort,” says Erin Franzinger CORE testing committee member.
When the time to vote came, teachers were given three choices on the ballots: a) Yes, I will teach rather than give the ISAT b) Yes, I will teach rather than give the ISAT if 75% vote yes, and c) No, I will give the ISAT. The faculty agreed 100% to boycott the ISAT test. Now we had the hard work of keeping solidarity in place.
This action took huge amounts of personal courage, and we used the strategies we had learned and experience through the Chicago teachers strike. We gathered a group of people every night to make phone calls to teachers and parents to help answer any questions and concerns, and to hold together the effort.
According to Sarah Chambers, the Saucedo staff experienced many threats and “held their ground when the administration confronted them one by one, when they were alone in their classrooms.” Chambers continues, “They would go to teachers, when they were most vulnerable and alone and say, ‘You will be replaced. Do you still want to boycott?’” The CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd Bennett, stated in a public news event that she would seek revocation of the teaching certificates of boycotting teachers. Even though their jobs had been threatened, the majority of teachers at Saucedo remained steadfast and refused to administer the tests. Thus far, the District has not followed through on any disciplinary actions against participating teachers.
Even with careful planning in place there are always unexpected occurrences. Anthony Cappetta, a CORE testing committee member, reflected, “I don’t think any of us on the committee fully understood how harshly the bosses would respond to students. In one school, a principal threatened taking away students’ ice cream social if they opted out of the tests. At another school, students were forced to stay after on a Friday afternoon and plead to the parents to reverse their opt-out decision.” Then in the weeks following the boycott, students were pulled from their classes and interrogated by the Chicago Public Schools’ legal department about their parents’ decision to opt them out.
The various unkind acts of principals prompted the development of the Administrators’ Pledge for the Ethical Treatment of Students Opting Out of Testing.
When looking back on the boycott, Sarah Chambers says, “I would’ve held the boycott vote a day or two before the test. Because we voted a week before the test, administration had more time to single out teachers and intimidate them one by one.” All members of the committee agree that organizing in any city need to take place at the beginning of the year. In fact, they believe parents should be in a position to inform administration that their students are opting out on the first day of school.
Anthony Cappetta believes that, “In any future actions we have to create ample space for teachers and parents to discuss the reasons to either opt-out or boycott standardized tests.” He envisions future meetings where large groups of parents can decide to opt-out their students together. “This will cut against some of the fear that exists when small groups of parents feel isolated.”
Tammie Vinson summarized the accomplishments of the Chicago boycott and the CORE testing committee’s efforts. “Overall, the committee worked together to do something that brought attention to a practice that is being used to close schools, fire teachers, and fail students in mostly neighborhood schools. We elevated the conversation.”
What do you think? Will we see more students, parents and teachers organizing test boycotts this spring?