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Sign at protest: Let's teach kids to think outside the box not fill in circles

Educators and students don’t need the added stress of administering and taking the SAT, PSAT, and NWEA

While CPS administered the SAT to students in September — and recruited educators as proctors for it — the district was mum about the one test that really matters during the pandemic. Before returning to in-person school, we need testing to determine who has COVID-19 and has to quarantine. What we don’t need are the SAT, PSAT, and NWEA.

CPS is making sure that all high school juniors and seniors can take the SAT and PSAT, which is unnecessary since two thirds of colleges and universities currently do not require the exams for admission. For the small number of students who do need to take it, CPS should provide a small group setting with adequate PPE and ventilation to keep students and educators safe.

Measuring wealth

The purpose of the exam, and others like it, is to determine what one student knows compared to what other students know. Questions that most students know the answer to are not asked, so the test does not measure how much students have learned in school. It essentially measures students’ socio-economic background.

The test is designed to correlate to family wealth, which centuries of systemic racism have denied to Black, Indigenous, and, more recently, Latinx and other immigrant families. CPS should refuse to give this test or at least fight against the state mandate.

And there are other tests that could be on the horizon for students this year. At press time, we were still awaiting word from CPS about whether it would administer the elementary school test, NWEA. This high-stakes exam is problematic, as well.

In mid-February, the CPS internal inspector general released a report detailing “concerning levels” of “gaming and cheating techniques” on the NWEA test in elementary schools. Students were taking up to five times the recommended testing time, sometimes spending days or a week to complete it. Often, they were coached to skip questions in order to generate easier ones.

High stakes

This came about because the district uses NWEA for high-stakes evaluations, through the racist SQRP rating system, which labels entire school communities as either successes or failures. NWEA test scores account for 60 percent of elementary schools’ SQRP rating.

Like other standardized tests, the NWEA is particularly inappropriate for English learners and students with disabilities. Further, the heavy emphasis on NWEA test scores narrows the curriculum of many schools, as the test measures only English and mathematics. CPS has decided not to recalculate SQRP scores this school year and will use last year’s rating instead. But the district intends to continue administering standardized tests this year.

The average U.S. student takes 112 standardized tests between Kindergarten and 12th grade, according to Fairtest.org, while the average CPS student takes up to 159 tests. Compare that to Finland, known for its outstanding schools, where students take one standardized test at the end of senior year, period. English learners and students with disabilities take even more, missing crucial instructional time.

During the pandemic, teachers have gone out of their way to develop creative, engaging, thought-provoking online lessons. Instead of testing, CPS should put its resources into supporting these teachers, during remote or in-person school, with trainings, money for materials, and a culture of collegiality.

Kindness and support needed

Our students and their educators are facing unprecedented times. We are teaching in new ways, supporting students and their families with resources, providing emotional support, and troubleshooting tech issues for families. Our students’ lives have been upended, as well. They are losing loved ones to the virus, working to help provide for their family, and caring for siblings while their parents work.

Let’s not add test anxiety to their already stressful lives. Instead of focusing on students’ deficits, let’s celebrate what our students bring to the classroom, especially during these trying times, and meet them with culturally relevant curriculum and pedagogy. Now is the time for kindness and support.

Carol Caref is an Education Policy Analyst with the CTU. Aaron Bingea is chair of the CTU Testing Committee.