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The 'opt-out' testing movement goes beyond the north side

Bronzeville social studies teacher Monique Redeaux-Smith wants students to think twice about standardized testing.


Monique Redeaux-Smith - SUNSHINE TUCKER
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If Chicago Public Schools gave a medal for these things, the winner for most creative defiance of the system's dumb-ass obsession with high-stakes standardized testing would go to Monique Redeaux-Smith, a seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher at southwest-side Morrill Math & Science School.

This year, more than half of her 66 students opted not to take the PARCC exam—one of several standardized tests CPS crams down the throats of students.

Moreover, Redeaux-Smith put to good use the extra time freed up from the PARCC, leading class discussions about the origins and impacts of high-stakes testing-where the results are potentially punitive to students, teachers, or schools.

The interesting twist is that Redeaux-Smith teaches in a school that's majority black and Latino.

In her own way, the Bronzeville activist—she was also one of the Dyett High School hunger strikers—is disproving the notion that the movement to cut back on standardized tests is only for white north-side moms.

Or at least that's how former CPS superintendent and U.S. Department of Education secretary Arne Duncan infamously put it when claiming that opposition to Common Core curriculum and high-stakes testing comes mainly from "white suburban moms who, all of a sudden, [realize] their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were."

You know, I wish Arne had been as outspoken when his former boss, Mayor Daley, was diverting all that TIF money from CPS.

Redeaux-Smith believes it's important for all students—especially low-income black and Latino ones—to at least think about the impact of standardized tests.

"People consider this to be a white, suburban movement—I don't buy into that," she says. "If you can't tell me how this will improve the academic opportunity for my students, don't waste my time. I'd feel like a hypocrite giving them a test that has nothing to do with learning anything."

At the moment, CPS requires all kids to take at least three high-stakes standardized tests every year.

There's the REACH—given twice a year to help evaluate a teacher's job performance.

There's the NWEA—used to determine, among other things, whether a student will be eligible for a selective enrollment high school.

That's not to be confused with NWA, which is not a test—it's the name of a rap group I've been obsessing over since I saw the biopic Straight Outta Compton.

Sorry, couldn't resist that joke—though a standardized test written by Ice Cube might be worth taking.

Anyway, then there's the PARCC—or, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. This one is supposed to make sure students are keeping pace with their peers in other school districts in learning the Common Core curriculum.

But it doesn't play a direct role in who gets into selective enrollment schools. And since it comes right before the NWEA—which parents and students take very seriously—the question is: Why burden students with a meaningless test right before they have to take a meaningful one?

The answer from the mayor and his school appointees seems to be, 'Cause we said so, damn it!

“This idea of accountability with no resources is a setup.”

—Monique Redeaux-Smith­

Last month, Janice Jackson, the chief education officer for CPS, sent a warning letter to parents and students.

"PARCC testing is mandatory," she wrote. "If less than 95 percent of CPS students take the exam, [the state and feds] can withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in funding."

Yeah, right. It's doubtful the Obama administration's going to snatch money from the president's hometown. And as much as Governor Rauner may want CPS to go bankrupt, he can't make a big deal about boycotting the PARCC when so many suburban parents are opting out.

Instead of blindly following central-office dictates, Redeaux-Smith thinks Chicagoans should ask this age-old question: How can you expect parity in test scores if you don't demand parity in funding?

"This idea of accountability with no resources is a setup," she says. "You don't standardize the economy so all schools have the same budget. You don't make sure that all students have an art teacher—you don't standardize that. It boggles my mind that they want to standardize everything except for the stuff that matters."

So while other kids were taking the PARCC, Redeaux-Smith had her students read and analyze such essays as "Six Reasons Why the Revolt Against Standardized Testing Is Good for Students and Parents of Color" by Jesse Hagopian, a public high school teacher in Seattle.

Her students also read Nikhil Goyal's recent article in the Nation pointing out that Duncan, Obama, and Emanuel all send their children to progressive private schools that don't force kids to take the PARCC.

And, they studied Jackson's letter to parents and students.

That last one is an especially good idea. I've long advocated using city documents in classroom discussion. For instance, teachers could use the city's fact sheet about the tax increment financing program in creative writing classes, filled as the document is with fabrications and fantastical distortions.

Ultimately, Redeaux-Smith leaves it up to her students whether they'll take the PARCC. "I don't tell them what to do," she says. "I give them the information and we look at both sides of the argument. But I tell them—I support what you do."

It's hard to predict how Mayor Emanuel will treat teachers and principals who don't follow the company line on standardized tests.

In 2014 the mayor threw a hissy fit over the opt-out movement, dispatching central-office lawyers to investigate whether teachers were encouraging students to boycott tests.

Last year he chilled out and looked the other way as the PARCC opt-out movement grew.

Of course, that was an election year, and the mayor probably didn't want to alienate voters more than he already had.

Now that voters, in their infinite wisdom, have given him four more years, it's anyone's guess as to what he's going to do.

My advice, Mr. Mayor, is to keep looking the other way. Too much time's already been wasted just giving these tests. v

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