Parent’s Perspective: This whole testing thing

Jessica Ashley is a single mother and blogger based in Chicago. Her blog is Sassafrass.

You can take action on high-stakes testing at testing.nysut.org.

Jessica_AshleyI’ve been reading the news coming out of New York where high-stakes testing has become a central issue in every conversation about education, where outreach is nationwide and needs are dire. I see it when people get that what is happening in your state is felt in mine, that the pressures placed on my school amplify the situation in yours, that state borders and city lines don’t hold in kids once they are educated and enter college and the workforce. How you teach and inspire and prepare your kids on that coast is important to the viability of my community and this economy.

I live in Chicago where it is no longer news that Chicago Public Schools are in crisis. It’s a long and frustrating legacy and a seemingly constant state we share with too many other public school systems in this country.

I’ve been aware of both the brokenness and best parts of CPS most of my life. I was not only a public school student, I am the daughter of a dedicated teacher who served the system for decades in the classroom and now, even in retirement, is a consultant who works with teachers to integrate reading and writing into curriculum. I walked many picket lines with her, mimeographed many worksheets for her and was raised to speak fluently about unions, service professions and the importance of being a part of making schools better, safer, enriched places where students could thrive.

My perspective has shifted now that I am a parent of a Chicago Public School student, but only in deepening my commitment to speak up about the deficits, raise awareness about the issues and be a part of solutions. That all sounds nice; maybe even noble. But it really means sitting in a lot of meetings and helping make very hard budget decisions when the needs are great and the funding is small.

Even if you are not from Chicago, or a former public-school child from here or a parent of a student in the system, the crisis in this city may be palpable to you. If you’ve tuned into any media coverage in the last year, you know that a heated teachers strike, extended-day debates and the impending closure of up to 54 city schools have infuriated people on all sides of every issue far beyond Chicago borders.

“I am just exhausted by this whole thing,” a parent told me on the playground last week. And I knew what she meant.

As an elected member of our Local School Council, I feel the responsibility of sharing news about the school and larger system with other parents in our community. I was explaining changes in the city’s slide-scale preschool program that called for every family who met an application deadline last fall to reapply again this spring. The do-over was designed to make space for the many kids who may be impacted by school closures. What it means, however, is that preschool spots for the fall, which should have already been secured, are now uncertain. Kids who had a seat in a classroom may not now, by virtue of lottery acceptances and the controversial closings.

It’s just one more bureaucratic move that could make education trickier to navigate – particularly for lower-income parents.

“The whole thing” that exhausts this parent and many others is a school system that seems wrought with take-backs and do-overs over issues that change a whole family’s life – like which school a child will attend in the fall, if it is safe for their children to walk to that neighborhood and if there are really spots for kids and their siblings in classrooms.

The thing about “the whole thing” is that we absolutely cannot let the exhaustion stop us. There is too much going on. There is far too much at stake. Here’s what I see as an involved and concerned parent.

Teachers are impacted. One of the key components of the strike and contract negotiations here last fall was how teachers would be evaluated. Much debate circled around test scores as an evaluative tool of a teacher’s success. And even though experts and union representatives spoke loudly about the many ways a child’s home life, health, socioeconomic status, exposure to violence, access to healthy and regular meals and other factors impact their test taking and results, steady voices resounded that we need some tools to judge teacher performance. Teaching to the test doesn’t make a great teacher. And it also doesn’t make for creative, curious, critical-thinking students.

Administrators are frustrated. With Common Core on its way, many schools are, as my son’s is, in the process of evaluating resources : What books and supplies are in stock? What do we have that we will be able to re-use? What are we lacking? We discovered that the Internet bandwidth at my son’s school was at the same level of that of a single-family home, yet it serves nearly 500 students and teachers. Since Common Core will require some students to take portions of the test on computers, this presented a very real and pressing problem. Old, refurbished computers, Internet that is constantly on the fritz, teachers scrambling for work-arounds, kids who have to sit out because there simply are not enough working stations for a whole classroom of kids – this has been a daily reality at the school. How in the world would we keep up when the stakes have been raised but the resources are paltry? Administrators are tasked with finding viable solutions to school problems every day but, too often, schools are not given enough funding, resources, time or staff to not just resolve issues but to thrive. The best administrators want their school communities, teachers and students to be their best selves, and are desperately in need of wider support to make that happen.

Parents are frustrated. This week, the Chicago Teachers Union filed two federal lawsuits on behalf of parentswho assert that school closures will unduly impact students with disabilities and African-American students. My guess is that there are a lot more conversations happening at dining room tables and on playgrounds by parents who are just as overwhelmed, concerned, nervous and exhausted by the one-thing-after-another school year that will certainly impact our kids.

Students are frustrated. Last week, hundreds of high schoolers here walked out of standardized testing in an organized protest of over-testing and under-resourcing of Chicago’s public schools. If you attended one of the union rallies held downtown during the strike or drove past the picket lines in September, it would not surprise you that students are raising louder voices about what’s happening in their own schools. Crowds of students held signs in support of teachers, matching the banners posted in houses by their families during that time. I heard that same confused, riled-up irritation in my own child’s voice during a testing session this year, even though I had not explained any of the Internet situation at his school to him.

“I really wanted to complete my test and do a great job,” he told me. “But how can I do that when the computer keeps kicking me out of the test?”

That, and ever the other question the next generation is raising, is valid. Who will answer these kids? Who will speak to the parents? Who will assure the teachers and take into consideration what the administrators see? Why aren’t these field notes factored into budgeting, calendars, expectations and standards?

I see it in the massive social-network mobilization of teachers in this city and in other states across the country. When teachers in my city raised voices and signs on Facebook, Twitter and online during the strike, they not only provided more platforms for parents and community members to stand with them, they made space to connect with and support teachers in other states.

I see it when subjective evaluations of teachers and measurements of school success are also embraced. People love data and numbers can certainly be useful in providing information about what is actually happening inside the walls of a school and in individual classrooms. But with all the factors that impact how well kids do on tests, how can results ever be objective? One of my mom’s colleagues, the brilliant Rebecca Barr, devised a primary grade evaluative tool called a Snapshot test, asserting that it could only measure one moment in time, one juncture in development. The results of a phenomenal teacher might not show up several years down the line, just as skipping breakfast or having a headache could skew a kid’s abilities on that one day. Widening the net to include a portfolio of assessments will not only serve students, it will serve teachers and administrators by telling a story numbers can’t clarify.

I see it when activists rally, when unions and parents and staffs and students are shouting out that this has been enough. This whole thing has been more than enough.

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