The Fear of Opting Out

There was a lot of controversy in Chicago surrounding the recent Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT). All sorts of opinions were offered regarding whether or not parents should or should not opt their kids out of taking the ISAT. The articles and editorials in the papers provided the perspective of a handful of reporters and editors, but I was far more interested in the discussion among parents of Chicago Public School students, particularly those who argued strongly for having their kids take the test and "rock the ISATs." At times it sort of felt like listening to folks who maintain that going outside in the winter will lead to catching a cold. With all the outstanding evidence supporting the germ theory, why would you still believe wind chills cause viruses? Similarly, with all the evidence supporting the uselessness of the ISAT, why did some parents still insist their kids take it? I'm not talking about people who had no opinion either way. I mean people who, even after being presented with the facts surrounding ISATs, still felt that opting kids out was a really bad idea. Why were so many parents adamant that their kids take the ISAT?

It is a fact that this was the last year for ISAT testing in CPS. The ISAT is being replaced next year by a different test, one that has been deemed "better" by the education reform ilk, the folks who claim to know a better test when they see one. ISAT is no longer considered a good way of assessing students, but the students were given it just this one more time anyway. That would be like the medical industry insisting on using blood letting for just one more year, even though they found a "better" way to heal the sick. "Yes blood letting will be replaced... but not until next year. Give the kids some mints to suck and make them go one more round." CPS parents knew the ISAT was being replaced and its findings meaningless, but many insisted their kids take it anyway. Why?

I heard the argument that kids should take the ISAT because life is a series of tests and kids can't opt out of a test that life throws their way, so they should get used to taking them. Well, life does indeed come with a lot of tests, but rarely are they of the fill in the bubble variety. Jan Demczur had a life test. It was on trusting your instincts. He was the window washer who used a squeegee to hack his way out of a twin tower elevator on 9/11. His instincts told him help wasn't coming. Jim Lovell and his Apollo 13 crew had a life test on creative problem solving. With a finite amount of supplies -- including oxygen -- aboard their damaged spacecraft, they figured out how to get back to earth. Rosa Parks had a life test too -- on civil rights. She chose "stay seated" as the best possible answer. See what I mean? No bubbles. Yes, life is a series of tests, but meaningful ones -- not of the ISAT variety, but parents know that. Yet many insisted that their kids take the ISAT anyway. Why?

Academic findings? Parents have a pretty good handle on where their kids are academically. They didn't need the ISAT to show them how their kids were faring at school, and there are other tests coming down the pike anyway. A few parents claimed that since standardized testing is so prevalent in CPS, they wanted their kids to get used to testing. Assessment testing in CPS is like a bus, miss one and another one comes along in 10 minutes. So missing this one wouldn't have hobbled anyone's testing ability. Parents know that too, so that can't be the reason they balked at opting out.

I think, the reason many parents had their kids take the ISAT this year, even though logic would decree it was unnecessary, had way more to do with lack of trust in CPS than it did with any professed value in the actual test. I think the lack of trust in CPS led to the unspoken or quietly murmured "I'm afraid that if I opt my kid out of taking the ISAT, he might get screwed by CPS if he wants to get into an Academic Center or Selective Enrollment High School." As a CPS parent, I absolutely, completely understand this fear. It's one I grappled with myself. In the past, ISAT scores were of particular importance to fifth and seventh grade students in CPS. (I happen to have a child in each of these grades this year.) For seventh graders, ISAT scores were a factor in whether or not students earned a seat at one of Chicago's few Selective Enrollment High Schools. For fifth grade, ISAT scores were a factor in whether or not students got a seat at one of Chicago's even fewer seventh and eighth grade Academic Centers. However, CPS stated that ISAT scores would no longer be a factor in the selection process. Other standardized test scores would be used for that purpose. So according to CPS, parents didn't have to worry about opting their kid out -- and yet the fear remained.

If you are not a CPS parent, it may be hard to understand the ominous presence the high school selection process holds over the city. There is so much pressure and desire for parents to have their kids in one of these high performing high schools, that anything that might have even the slightest chance of jeopardizing their child getting a seat, is a risk not worth taking. This is, I believe, the real reason many parents did not want to opt their kids out of taking the ISAT. Fear that CPS would not keep their word with regards to the admittance process to Chicago's Selective Enrollment High Schools and Academic Centers. Along with that, parents feared their schools, principals and teachers would somehow incur the disfavor of CPS as well. Parents did not want to take that risk.

The whole issue of opting out or not shined a light on just how little trust parents in Chicago have in the folks that run the public school system. They don't trust the CPS to keep its word. Parents feared pettiness, retribution and punishment coming from CPS if they opted their kids out. Nice way to feel about the folks who have your kids for seven hours a day isn't it?

My fifth grader came home after her first day of opting out and said, "I'm glad I didn't have to sit through the ISAT Mom, but some kids told me I just ruined my chance of maybe getting into an academic center. CPS could change their mind next year and say ISATs count, and I just messed up my chances. What do you think?" What do I think? I think sometimes you have to take a stand for what you believe in even if few others stand with you and you have to trust that no matter what the outcome, you will be able to handle it. That's what I think.