Opting out of testing is not progressive

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Gordon Wright

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Lately I've noticed a lot of my fellow left-leaning parents on Chicago's North Side decrying the state's new standardized test, PARCC. Those with kids in testing grades are even talking about "opting out" of it entirely, as a sign of protest.

From what I can tell, many liberals see opting out of PARCC as a badge of progressive honor, a declaration for social justice. 

They're mistaken.

First and foremost, one of the primary goals of administering PARCC is to protect low-income kids and other students in vulnerable populations. As vilified as standardized tests have become, when No Child Left Behind started to require every state to test every kid annually between third and eighth grade (and once in high school), it exposed irrefutable, yawning achievement gaps across the board — including black, Hispanic, English-language-learning, and special-needs students.

Before then, states and districts could conveniently look at the averages and presume they were doing OK. Thanks to annual statewide testing, we now have enough information to see that in many urban schools and districts, things are most definitely not OK for these children. Now we have vital information to spur schools, districts, states and the federal government to act.

So let's be clear: PARCC isn't an added test on top of the others. It's a replacement test for the ISAT.

And as a replacement, PARCC looks to be a huge improvement on old, bubble-sheet, #2-pencil tests like the ISAT. Those tests didn't assess critical thinking or real-world, problem-solving abilities. Worse, they encouraged rote memorization, which led to the drill-and-kill test prep that gave standardized tests such a bad name in the first place. I'm glad to see we're moving away from that.

My oldest is in kindergarten now, but once he hits third grade, I don't plan to opt him out. I know it might be a tough exam, but I'm confident he'll know that he's much "more than a score." I don't see him suffering some huge crisis of self-esteem even if he struggles, and my hope is he'll just do his best. Besides, isn't a challenge like this part of building the sort of grit we've been told is so crucial to success in life?

I also want to know how well he and his school are doing compared to the rest of the state. And because Illinois adopted the Common Core academic standards back in 2010, I'll also have an idea how they're doing compared to others across the country. As a parent, this matters to me.

Maybe more important, though, is that I want their teachers to know my kids' strengths and weaknesses as they enter a new class in the fall. It seems to me invaluable for teachers to have in hand individual results from a quality test for every kid, aligned with the very standards they're teaching.

Look, I get it. When I received an email from the school detailing all the tests the kids sit through here in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), I was apprehensive to say the least. But our response as parents should not be to sit out a test with such importance to serving the needs of all kids.

Instead, we should be urging CPS to consolidate these numerous and redundant tests, as I certainly hope they plan to do after administering PARCC and MAP this year.

And aren't there greater educational injustices more worthy of our political ire? What about our state's woefully low funding levels for education in general? What about the fact that only 14 out of 100 CPS freshmen will graduate from college by their mid-20s?

At best, withholding our children from PARCC won't fix our biggest inequities in public education. At worst, it will prevent us from fixing the things that most need our attention. 

That sure doesn't sound progressive to me.

J. Gordon Wright is a resident of Chicago

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