Organized Confusion: PARCC Hypocrisy, Bullying, and Fear-Mongering in CPS

An Open Letter to Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO of Chicago Public Schools

Cc: Rahm Emanuel, Mayor

Ms. Byrd-Bennett,

In response to parent and teacher support for opting children out of the PARCC Test, you sent a message to all CPS principals. It states:

Please be advised that ISBE does not recognize a parent’s right to opt a child out of required student assessments, as there is no law in Illinois allowing this.  While a parent cannot “opt a child out,” there may be students who refuse to participate in required state assessments.

There are numerous faults and inconsistencies in your letter. I attempt to address a few of them here.

“Choice” Hypocrisy

It is pitifully ironic that you, Mr. Emanuel, and ISBE Chairman James Meeks—self-professed proponents of what you call “parental school choice”—would fight so vigorously to deny parents the choice of opting their children out of testing.

Posturing, Bullying and Wasting Learning Time

Your letter states that even if the parent states, in writing, not to test the child, school officials still must present each child with each one of the five sections of the PARCC tests and force the child to refuse each section separately. In April—when the second half of the PARCC is administered—you have directed us to repeat this process with up to 3 sessions. In total we have been directed to force students to verbally or physically refuse the PARCC on up to eight distinct occasions.

Your letter goes on to state:

It is unfortunate that ISBE’s limited guidance on this matter has placed the burden of refusing the test on students. I believe this is unfair to our students, families, principals and staff. However, we are obligated to follow ISBE’s limited direction to avoid sanctions that would have a devastating impact on our district.

If you believe it is “unfortunate,” and “unfair” then why are CPS officials alleged to be forcing children in some schools to refuse not only to the teacher, but to the principal and the network chief? If you believe it’s “unfair,” why was a network chief sent to Mollison School—my elementary alma mater—where the chief is said to have made students refuse directly to her; in one case allegedly forcing a fourth grade autistic child to articulate his desire to opt out despite the fact that he’d already made his desire clear when he himself submitted a signed note from his mother?

Then there’s what is alleged to have happened at Taylor school on the far southeast side, where a teacher reported an administrator, “got within a few inches of the face of one young man in the [opt-out] line, and asked him loudly, “DID SHE PUT A TICKET IN YOUR HAND?!!!”, then ordered the teacher to “PUT A TESTING TICKET IN EVERY STUDENT’S HAND AND PUT THEM IN FRONT OF A COMPUTER!”

Although the facts behind both of the above incidents are in dispute, it is noteworthy that the people making the above claims are all parents of low-income minority children—the children our mayor said would “never amount to anything”; the children whose schools he shut down; and the children who he funnels to charter schools where they experience less academic growth than in the public system they came from. Why has CPS added PARCC bullying to the long list of offenses it has committed against these children and their families?

Deception and Confusion Part 1: Repressive Framing of the Law

Your letter is deceptive in how it frames parental rights. The letter does not state that parents don’t have a right to opt their children out. It states that ISBE does not recognize a parent’s right to opt their children out. In other words, despite the fact that parents do have that right, ISBE has chosen not to acknowledge it.

There is a sentence on which the logic of everything in your letter rests. The sentence is as follows:

Please be advised that ISBE does not recognize a parent’s right to opt a child out of required student assessments, as there is no law in Illinois allowing this.

The statement, “There is no law in Illinois allowing this” is particularly disturbing. There is no law in Illinois allowing us to teach with “smart boards,” pull our children from school for family vacations, or assign homework on Fridays. Yet people do all of these things with regularity without consequence. We are not a society that curtails its actions based on the absence of a law allowing us to do a particular thing. We curtail our behavior based on the presence of an explicit law or rule prohibiting us from engaging in a particular act.

The fact that ISBE and CPS expects this kind of ominous and unsettling totalitarian logic to hold water is insulting to the principles of liberty and a seemingly desperate and pathetic attempt to inject confusion into a matter which is utterly clear: In a situation in which students are distressingly over-tested, parents have the right to opt their students out of standardized testing.

Deception and Confusion Part 2: Funding

Third, you cite a letter from ISBE that threatens to withhold funding should CPS not test “100%” of students. These threats violate ISBE’s own precedents in terms of how it has dealt with opt-outs in past years, and would subject ISBE to a massive class-action lawsuit should it be foolish and vindictive enough to follow through on its threats to withhold money from bilingual students, students with disabilities, and students from low-income households simply because students and their parents chose not to take a test. This threat has no merit; yet you continue to spread ISBE’s false doomsday pronouncements in an effort to frighten parents, teachers, and principals into subjecting our students to the failed practice of over-testing them.

A couple months ago you stated it was not in our students’ best interested to take the PARCC. If you sincerely believed this, you could have done what the New York City Department of Education advised its principals to do when parents opt their children out of similar state tests. They instructed their principals to “respect the parents’ decision and let them know that the school will work to the best of their ability to provide the child with an alternate educational activity.”

Instead you changed your tune and began praising the PARCC, calling it the “truest measure of the Common Core” in your letter to principals. Your implausible flip-flop on the issue gives some measure of believability to those who felt CPS’s request to have only 10% of students take the PARCC was an insincere election season ruse.

Summary and Conclusion

CPS has exhibited intense hypocrisy in regard to parental choice. It has bullied children and their families, been deceptive in its repressive framing of the law in regard to opt out rights, and parroted dubious claims about losing funds in relationship to opting out.

As a result, I will be taking the following course of action and call on you to advise all CPS principals to do the same:

Our school will meet its responsibility to administer the PARCC to all students who want to take it. Nearly 80% of our students have already expressed their decision to refuse the PARCC by submitting letters from their parents opting them out of the test. When students handed that opt-out letter to their teachers, that act was an expression of their refusal to take the test. That is enough for me, and it should be enough for CPS and ISBE. No child under my watch, who has expressed his or her decision to refuse the PARCC, will be sat in front of any computer to take it, nor presented with any materials. We will not waste even more learning time by subjecting our students to ISBE’s deceptive fear-mongering and CPS’s hypocritical test-driven political theater.


Troy LaRaviere

  • CPS Graduate
  • Former CPS Teacher
  • CPS Parent
  • CPS Principal
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  • Twitter: @TroyLaRaviere

Next Week: ISBE’s Version of Stand Your Ground – An Open Letter to James Meeks, Chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE)

6 thoughts on “Organized Confusion: PARCC Hypocrisy, Bullying, and Fear-Mongering in CPS

  1. I’m on the steering committee for “More than a Score” but I am speaking only for myself here, not on behalf of MtaS.

    I agree that several network officials and some school administrators have acted atrociously (according to DNAinfo reports it was the network 9 chief, Janice Jackson, at Mollison and according to Substance News, it was an assistant principal, Urbano Adrianzen, and a network 13 official at Taylor.) There were problems with administration and faculty at several schools last year during the ISAT boycotts. This time, however, even at Taylor and Mollison, the outcome was that the parents’ requests were honored and the students were not tested.

    At issue, is whether parents’ decisions to have their children not take the assessment should be fulfilled (respect opt-outs) or whether children must themselves refuse to take the exam. MtaS’s position (and even CPS’s position prior to ISBE orders in 2014) was the former. ISBE has taken the latter view. Even ISBE has not take some of the more draconian steps that a few other states have taken or suggested that districts take to deter opt-outs and refusals.

    I would much prefer that the they allow CPS to go the way of Albuquerque Public Schools, which has an opt-out form on its website even though state law grants no such exception. Unlike APS, CPS faced strong and public threats from the state board of education, and unfortunately for our cause, state law largely supports the state board. ISBE’s position has been that state law and federal funding rules require the state to conduct the assessments. This is largely correct, but I find ISBE to be fear-mongering about federal aid cut-offs, misrepresenting the risks of these cut-offs, and threatening sanctions well beyond what even federal rules would require.

    Where ISBE is unreasonable, however, is over legislation that would permit opt-outs by parental request. HB306 would legislate that opt-outs are sufficient and that refusal is unnecessary. ISBE alleges that the federal government _might_ deny aid or waivers to Illinois even though it has never done so to states that have had opt-out legislation for over a decade (CA, WI, PA) and that have recently created such legislation (UT, OR, NE). ISBE’s existential fear despite all evidence to the contrary is unreasonable.

    My position is that these assessments are harmful to my daughter’s education and public education. The assessment-based “accountability system” in fact denies me the ability to hold teachers, principals, or the district accountable. How is my teacher able to explain my daughter’s achievement when neither of us can see based the questions and correct answers? If school-level means on assessments are the primary measure by which districts and states determine the quality of a school, how it is funded, and whether it remains open, how can I hold the principal, the district officials, or state officials to account for what goes on in the school or school system? If I am told the school’s scores are at the 95th percentile of all schools and so it is an excellent school, a discussion of what the school is doing well and what needs to be changed never even begins.

  2. The courts have never granted parents an “absolute” right of this nature. The courts have never even ruled that parental rights are subject to the “strict scrutiny” standard rather than the “rational basis” standard. It is on the latter that most claims of parental rights have been dismissed.

  3. YES! YES! All of the YESES! Your posts and commitment to your students and school is AWESOME! We from downstate support you, sir, and send you many thanks for this and offer to stand with you as colleagues and partners in this work. Way to go. Just excellent.

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