Starting March 9, District 97 students in grades three through nine will undergo the Partnership for Assessment Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam. The test, which ranges from eight to nine hours depending on the grade level, replaces the Illinois State Achievement Test (ISAT) as a tool for evaluating elementary student performance. 

While most D97 students will concentrate on the test this week, some students may have to sit in silence for a period of time. 

A group of parents in the district, along with those in school districts across the country, have decided that their children will opt out of taking the PARCC exam. At the high school level, Oak Park and River Forest Principal Nate Rouse said that, to date, he hasn’t had requests from parents to have their students opt out. 

According to D97’s process and procedures for administering PARCC, “If students choose not to take the assessment, they will not be permitted to participate in an alternative activity in another room. They must remain in their classroom throughout the testing process, and will be allowed to engage in a non-disruptive activity (reading a book, drawing, etc.) only after the first student has finished testing.” 

The district argues that the policy is consistent with what has been done in the past and that it’s necessary so that the majority of students taking the test can do so uninterrupted. 

That mandate has angered some parents whose children won’t be taking the exam.

“We believe it is inhumane,” said Sergio Hernandez, referring to what he and other parents are calling the district’s “sit and stare” policy. Hernandez said he and the parents of at least five other students in his child’s fourth-grade class at Lincoln School have elected to opt out of the test due to varying concerns with PARCC itself. 

Those concerns include the amount of time it takes to finish the exam; that the exam is has not been adequately developed; that its rollout this year is bound to be more disruptive to student learning than helpful; that it tests children at two grade-levels higher than they are; and that the rigors of the test, and of an overreliance on testing in general, may have the potential to harm the emotional and cognitive development of very young children. 

Some of these concerns, indeed, are shared by the District 97 board, as well as school districts, educators, parents and administrators across the country — even those who believe that, over the long term, PARCC is the best way of tracking student development and identifying low-performing students who may require more resources. 

But anti-PARCC parents say these problems are less immediate than the district’s “sit and stare” policy.

Karen Yarbrough, whose fifth-grader at Longfellow School will be opting out of the test, expressed outrage at the district’s stance.

“I find it so hard to believe that the district thinks it is OK to try to bully young children as young as 8 years old into taking this test,” said Yarbrough, who has been at the center of Oak Park’s brewing opt-out movement. The Facebook page she started, Concerned Oak Park Parents for Parking the PARCC, has 71 members. 

Yarbrough wants the district to implement the kind of non-punitive policies “that respect the choices of children and their parents” which are on the books in school districts in Winnetka, Palatine and Downers Grove, whose District 58 is allowing students to read or do work quietly throughout the test.

In an email response to her concerns, Superintendent Al Roberts noted that the district “will not be offering an opt-out choice or alternative activity to students who choose not to take the assessment,” but that districts “can develop a policy for those students who refuse to take assessments on testing days.”

The comments sections below some of Yarbrough’s Facebook postings have generated myriad complaints, ranging from confusion about whether or not parents have the legal right to opt out to concerns about how the test accommodates children with special needs. 

“Imagine your kid is learning a new language or has a reading disorder,” said Hernandez, who is a bilingual education teacher on sabbatical to work as an early childhood education policy fellow. “The PARCC is two grade levels above them — that in itself is a bit much.” 

Jon Leonard’s child is in the same classroom at Lincoln as Hernandez’s. Leonard said he believes PARCC should at least be put off for a year, but barring that, which he realizes is a virtual impossibility, the district should accommodate children who don’t take the test.

“They’re only making kids take the test because they don’t want to set a precedent of kids not taking tests,” he said.

But for school districts, the dynamic may be much more basic. This week, the Illinois State Board of Education made an example out of the Chicago Public Schools, threatening to cut off more than $1 billion in state and federal funds to the district if went through with its initial plan to test only 10 percent of students in its more than 660 schools. That show of force may have smaller districts throughout the state a bit frightened.

In a letter sent to districts throughout the state this month, ISBE Chairman James Meeks and State School Superintendent Christopher Koch said the ISBE would withhold an alphabet soup of funding sources on which most districts depend, including Title I, Title III, IDEA and School Improvement Grants, if 95 percent of their eligible students don’t participate in the exam. 


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