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Tales from the Motherhood: To teach or to test – that is the question

Published: Friday, March 7, 2014 3:44 p.m. CST

Seems the ISAT (Illinois Standards Achievement Test) debacle being played-out in well over 70 Chicago schools has come to the suburbs.

My daughter recently was sick with a virus, and after I called to report her third straight absence from school on Tuesday, I got a call back and was told that the homework she’d requested would be sent home only every two days. (I prefer she rest completely, but the 103.5 temperature she spiked on Saturday was finally down, after yo-yo-ing for days, and she decided that if she did some homework she’d rest better knowing she’d be less overwhelmed upon her return to school. She’s a seventh-grader. I let her make the call.)

“Don’t worry, there won’t be much [homework] because of ISAT’s,” a staff person at Rotolo Middle School in Batavia told me. True. Tuesday was the first day of ISAT testing, which was to be interspersed with classes through the end of the week. Holly asked if she would be expected to make-up the two tests she’d already missed, volunteering that she doesn’t wish to be pulled out of any classes to do so as she’s already missed a lot – in particular, the first two days of her new exploratory classes (i.e. electives), which began Monday with the third trimester (in her case, French and computers). When I put her question to school staff, I was told that, like other kids who missed portions of the test, she would be pulled away from her elective classes next week as the school feels this is less disruptive than pulling students from core subjects. When I explained this to Holly; she disagreed. I support her.

Numerous reports suggest that this much-maligned test will be phased-out altogether, perhaps before next year. But that’s next year. This year, this week, in our little town, there’s at least one kid who simply wants the freedom to receive all of the education to which she’s entitled, alongside her peers.

Instead, the school plans, as per Illinois school code, to pull her out of two of her classes next week to make up the missed tests.

Though her father and I have philosophical and practical concerns about the efficacy of and methodology behind standardized testing in general, I’m embarrassed to admit that we’ve yet to stir the pot on the subject. Until now.

We’re not alone.

Debates have been raging about high-stakes standardized tests in general, and now the ISAT’s in particular, so much so that the teachers at one Chicago school (Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy) recently unanimously voted to refuse to administer the ISAT to their students, citing their refusal to waste students’ valuable class time with another “destructive” test. 

Wow.

Holly returned to school on Wednesday. We didn’t make a fuss about her being tested the remainder of the week, as, like other kids at this tender age, she prefers merely to do what her peers are doing and not be singled out, at school, as one who is making a fuss; but I made it clear to school officials that they do not have her father’s or my blessing to pull her out of any class to test her next week. We were told she would be.

“We have a legal obligation to test,” said Laurie Fiorenza, vice principal of Curriculum and Instruction at Rotolo.

“I thought you had a legal obligation to teach,” I replied, truly stunned at the hard line I was hearing. “I’m disappointed. Here we are,” I said, “faced with a choice – to test or to teach. What’s it going to be? What’s your priority?” I asked.

“I don’t have an answer for you,” Fiorenza replied. Schools perceive that they are legally obligated to administer this test. But are students legally obligated to take it?

“Students who enter the building will be tested,” Fiorenza stated. She explained that students will be directed from their exploratory classes to the testing center. And if they refuse? “Then we will remove the other students from the room and administer the test,” she said. Wow. Imagine what that would be like for a kid?

In any case, “We cannot force them to use the pencil,” admitted Rotolo Principal Stephen Maciejewski. If a student refuses to remain for the entire test session, he added, they would risk some sort of discipline.

Fiorenza and Maciejewski each reported that this is the first time that this question has been put to them by a parent.

To their credit, after some discussion, they offered to proctor the two missed tests before or after school, next week. I nixed the before-school offer, and the after-school option didn’t sit well with my daughter. For one thing, she has two neighbor dogs to care for every day after school. Moreover, she sees staying after to make up these tests as an “out-of-the-norm” thing that kids in trouble must do, and doesn’t wish to do this. I get it. It’s her call.

“What would you do?” she asked me after I explained her options to either make up the test during class time or after school. “Well, that’s a tough one,” I told her. “What 46-year-old me would do might be very different from what 13-year-old me might do. Plus, you’re not me. You’re you. I can tell you what I think I’d do, but I will be proud of you, no matter what.”

She didn’t ask for any more.

After spending a few quiet moments filling her goody-bags for her 13th birthday party, she decided she would sacrifice two of her core classes to make up the missed ISAT’s.

Who should bear the burden, adults or children?

Though I really wish BPS would muscle-up, examine its guts and take a stand against this particular  test – or at least share some of Holly’s burden and risk whatever consequences they fear they might face in not forcing her to finish the tests (rumors schools would lose funding if they don’t test every student in attendance or meet certain result standards are unfounded, according to Cassie Creswell, parent organizer for Chicago-based “More than a score”), I empathize with school staff. They’re in a tough spot.

They risk violating the school code, and, perhaps, their jobs, if they stray from the script.

But who better to take a stand alongside their students?

Holly has my support.

In protest, she may choose to write “refused” or nothing on her test booklet – if she picks up a pencil at all – but “That’s not me,” she said.

 I am so proud. Taking a stand, and knowing who she is is activism enough for a seventh-grader.
• Jennifer DuBose lives in Batavia with her husband, Todd, and their two children, Noah and Holly. Contact her at editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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