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Copyright 2015 (c) James Broadway All Rights Reserved

Volume 21, Number 28, March 23, 2015

'Lobby Day' set for bill to protect PARCC opt-outs from punishment

By Jim Broadway, Publisher, Illinois School News Service

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, Inc. (PARCC), a non-profit developer of high-stakes tests that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts, got paid $1,226,557.00 by the Illinois State Board of Education this fiscal year. All in one lump sum, no waiting.

That's more than the organization's total income in 2013.

PARCC will be around for a long time unless the current congressional struggle to overhaul and reauthorize the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act - also known as No Child Left Behind - results in a federal prohibition against statewide testing as an "accountability" measure. (Don't hold your breath.)

The question is, will at least 95% of Illinois students take the PARCC tests this school year? If not, according to Secretary of Education Beth Purvis (yes, that's the title given to her by Gov. Bruce Rauner) Illinois could lose up to $1.3 billion in federal funding. But anti-PARCC voices tend not to believe that threat.

Who are these anti-PARCC voices? Actually, I receive email from educators for and against PARCC (but by far more from those who are against having the test administered this school year). An organized effort to make it possible for parents to let their kids "opt-out" of  the test without punishment is also under way.

A leader in the effort is a group called "Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education." Raise Your Hand was established in Chicago in 2010 and has focused mainly on issues unique to the Windy City (such as the closure of 50 schools in a single year). But PARCC has stimulated membership growth in all corners of the state.

Raise Your Hand Executive Director Wendy Katten tells me members of the group from Chicago and from other counties plan to be in Springfield Wednesday to meet with legislators and hold a news conference on the topic of HB 306, a bill to let students opt-out of a state test. Here is the pivotal paragraph of the bill:

"A student is not required to take a particular State assessment under this Section if that student's parent or guardian requests, in writing, that the student be excused from taking the State assessment. The State Board of Education shall, by rule, (i) determine the form of the request; (ii) ensure that no student, teacher, school, or school district is negatively impacted, through grades or evaluations, due to a student being excused from taking a State assessment; and (iii) ensure that students who are excused from taking a State assessment are offered supervised instructional or enrichment opportunities during the time the State assessment is being administered."

Raise Your Hand supports the bill. State Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago), sponsor of HB 306, recently told news media about the bill and introduced a parent who said she was threatened that she would have to pay a fee for her children to attend a Chicago charter school if the children did not take the PARCC test.

Another Chicago group called "More than a Score" has also protested what it calls "bullying" by ISBE. The group offers parents "useful advice" and documents to help parents opt their children out of PARCC and other state tests.

Guzzardi's bill is on second reading in the House. Numerous "impact notes" have been filed on the bill, but only one says it would cause negative impact. ISBE's note alleges HB 306 would jeopardize $1 billion or more in federal funding. While that may be true in a technical sense, it is beyond the fringe of our reality.

HB 306 was filed in late January. It was approved by the House PK-12 committee on Licensing Oversight by a 3-2 vote, a partisan roll call with Democrats voting in the affirmative. Co-sponsors of the bill, Democrats whose legislative districts are in or near Chicago, were joined recently by Rep. Dwight Kay (R-Edwardsville).

The bill has until April 24 for the House to vote it over to the Senate where it would need to be approved by the Senate Education Committee and passed by the full Senate before it would go the Rauner's desk - where it would be vetoed. Could three-fifths of both chambers vote to "override" a veto in the fall? Probably not.

Chickens eventually do come home to roost. The 1983 Reagan Administration attack on public education in the form of the hyperbolic rant called A Nation At Risk started the ball rolling.

Rather than simply say it would be good to improve the learning of our students, ANAR authors felt obliged to accuse the nation's public school educators of having acquired a sudden "rising tide of mediocrity" that put at risk "our very future as a Nation and a people." Read it. It's right there in the first paragraph.

Distrust of teachers grew to a frenzy - not among parents, mind you, just in the business and political sectors. High-stakes testing followed as an "accountability" mechanism. No Child Left Behind was an inevitable consequence. The IRS will not audit every taxpayers, but federal policy forces an audit of every student's "achievements."

Here's an excellent source for the longer explanation. The short version is this: Federal education policy was taken over by political ambitions at the federal level and the magic in the teacher-student relationship was severely damaged, along with respect for the profession of teaching - and young people's motivation to enter it.

So now the policymakers are wondering why they are seeing such dramatic reductions in enrollments in teacher preparation programs (as we predicted regularly in recent years). Most of the media missed the obvious effects of attacks on teachers, but not all. NPR even wondered why so many teachers persevere.

What NPR learned, of course, is that it's not about money. It's about the moment a student "gets it" after working so hard to figure out it. It's that magic moment that motivates teachers, a moment increasingly lost in the fog of test-prep and in the shifting standards and the high-stake tests (audits) to which they are aligned.

Money won't avert the coming national teacher shortage. (It's already contributed to a shortage of substitute teachers around the nation and also in Illinois.) Three decades of accusing educators of being the cause of everything that's wrong with the national economy cannot be salved with higher pay or smaller classes.

What will undo the damage? An apology would be a good start. The return of teachers' ability to have a say in what goes on in their classrooms might help. Recognition of the vital roles teachers and school leaders play in human development might be appropriate. Holding the profession in high esteem will be required.

Even all this would take decades to undo the damage begun in 2001.

Charter schools' impact is weak in Chicago: The Stanford University's CREDO report - an effort to quantify the impact of charter schools' effectiveness in teaching math and reading, compared with traditional public schools - was released last week. Illinois' charters impact did not match that of the rest of the nation's charters.

The CREDO study focused on urban areas this year. For Illinois, the study focused on student learning in only Chicago's charters, as compared with the performance of students in traditional public schools (TPS) of similar demographics.

To give them credit, the researchers acknowledged that charter school students are enrolled "by choice," and so they may have a demographic advantage - being children of engaged parents to a greater extent - over students in Chicago Public Schools TPS attendance centers. So it was not apples-to-apples.

But if CPS charters had that advantage, it did them little good. In general, Chicago charters' achievements were reported at about 16 days of "gain" relative to TPS students in math, but negligible, maybe 2 days, gain in reading, compared with a national average charter impact of 40 days in math and 28 days in reading.

Even at this, Illinois charters' impact was inconsistent - often even very negative - with respect to student subgroups. In math, English Language Learners and special education students compared negatively by negligible measures, but black and Asian students lost over 30 days and 50 days, respectively, compared with TPS students.

In reading, the report is unhinged. While ascribing a 2-day gain "Overall," it reports a 35-day gain for "Poverty Students" and losses for ELL students (-11 days), special education (-3.6 days), black (-33 days), Asian (-74 days) and white (-106 days). It seems likely the report will result in a legislative hearing or two.

Generally, in spite of an impact picture that suggests charter schools are finally doing more good than harm, the data are as violently inconsistent at the national level as they are in Illinois. Huge learning gains in Boston, Newark, Memphis, New York, New Orleans more than offset dramatic losses in a number or sunbelt towns.

The impact of this report on the Illinois education legislative agenda seems likely to trend toward the negative for charter advocacy groups, offsetting to a great extent the promise of Gov.  Bruce Rauner to "lift the cap" on charters.

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