THE LOOP — As Chicago Public Schools prepared to give standardized tests to hundreds of thousands of students this week, irate parents filed a formal complaint with the ACLU and presented demands to the state board Monday after officials said the test would be presented even to students whose parents don't want them to take it.
Some 35 parents filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union to determine if their right to due process under the 14th Amendment had been violated. About a dozen of them held a news conference at the Thompson Center downtown before delivering a letter to the Illinois State Board of Education calling for the policy to be explained and, in any case, abandoned.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett had both previously stated that parents could opt their children out of taking the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, which is being phased out this year and is no longer used for promotions or for admission to selective-enrollment schools. But, according to a Friday letter from Byrd-Bennett to CPS principals, state Board of Education "guidance" states that "test booklets must be distributed to students and the testing directions read to students," even those "whose parents have opted them out of the test."
ISBE spokeswoman Mary Fergus explained, "There's no opt-out procedure under state and federal law. They must be offered the test." She added that it's a "district decision" whether to allow parents to let students opt out, but even if allowed a test has to be at least delivered to the student.
Parents were livid about that interpretation of the law.
"I find this absolutely reprehensible," said Rhoda Rae Gutierrez, a Coonley School parent who lives in North Center. "My 9-year-old, to have to decide whether or not to listen to her parents or her teachers — who she trusts with all her heart — [it] is an absolutely coercive act."
Cassie Creswell, of the grassroots group More Than a Score, ripped the policy.
"You can't tell children the opposite of what parents have said," said Creswell. "Children are being asked to refuse the test. They're being told to rescind their opt-out letters. Parents are being asked to rescind their opt-out letters." She called the district's actions "egregious violations of parental rights," adding, "It is the failure of leadership, and it makes me sick."
But CPS spokesman Joel Hood said funding could be at risk if the kids aren't given the test this week. The two-week window for administering the ISATs began Monday in CPS, but many schools were waiting until Tuesday to begin because attendance tends to be higher and students can be reminded to prepare Monday night.
Hood cited a letter the district received from state Supt. Christopher Cook and Illinois State Board of Education Chairman Gery Chico.
"State officials reaffirmed that the ISAT test is mandated by state and federal law, and failure to comply puts government funding at risk, including Title I funds aimed to help children from low-income families," Hood said. "The results of the ISAT also help parents and teachers across the state assess how well their students are meeting key benchmarks in core academic subjects and assists educators in tailoring instructional planning. Our children deserve every classroom resource and tool to ensure they graduate 100 percent college ready and 100 percent college bound."
Byrd-Bennett also reaffirmed that she expected all district staff to comply with the policy that the test be at least delivered to all students.
"The district is committed to administering the exam and expects all CPS employees to fulfill their responsibilities to ensure we are in compliance with the law," she said in a statement.
But Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey said the ISBE policy is "an extreme problem for our members right now." He added that "teachers have the respect of their students," and for a teacher to present a test to a student, even after a parent has told that student to opt out, "that student is most likely to take it. And if I know as a teacher that tested student's parents don't want them to take the test, I'm put in an incredibly contradictory and difficult situation.
"So it's an ethical dilemma for the teacher," Sharkey added. "And the district has not provided any clarity about this."
Sharkey noted that Little Village parents of students at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy — where teachers have vowed not to give the test — had been subjected to CPS "robo-calls" this weekend asking them to rescind any opt-out decisions.
Pritzker parent Rousemary Vega attacked the "intimidation and pressure" being put on parents and said she had advised her daughter to put her head on her desk if confronted with a test booklet.
Creswell cited how Emanuel had boasted of extending the school day to add more time for instruction, and CPS had tacked on four make-up days for snow and cold cancelations, adding, "Yet we can afford to have two weeks where our schools are disrupted for a test that is being used for nothing."
Edwin Yohnka, spokesman for the ACLU of Illinois, said, "We never publicly comment on such contacts to protect the privacy of individuals who call or contact our office." He added that the group had not taken a position on the matter.
"That's certainly their right to file that complaint," Fergus said. She allowed that the different policies between the state and districts had created contradictions, and said parents had been told the state board was willing to "work with them" on new statewide legislation.