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Parents picket Cullerton’s office, want action on PARCC opt-out

Protesters outside the Chicago office of Illinois Senate President John Cullerton on Wednesday morning. | Lauren FitzPatrick/Sun-Times

As state standardized testing continues in its second week, about 20 parents picketed outside the North Side office of the Illinois Senate president, demanding that he unblock a bill that lets parents opt their children out of such tests.

“This is the bill that allows parents to have a voice in whether or not their kids take standardized tests,” said Vanessa Caleb Herman, a parent with children at Waters and Coonley elementary schools. “Against the odds it passed the House last year and now it’s ready to shrivel and die on the desk of the Senate president, which is ridiculous. Just put it in committee and put it out for discussion and see what the people want.”

The proposal would clarify parents’ right to prevent their children from taking state standardized tests and would spell out how schools would treat those children.

Currently, the onus to skip Illinois’ mandated tests — currently, that’s the lengthy PARCC exam — falls to each child. The school must present a test to each student, who then must refuse each test section.

No law guides schools on what to do with children who don’t test. The protesting parents say nothing also prevents the schools from mistreating those kids — by making them “sit and stare” or wait in silence with nothing to do while their classmates test, or by leaving them out of recess or fun activities set up for kids after testing.

Vanessa Caleb Herman, a parent with children at Waters and Coonley elementary schools, holds son Teddy as she protests outside Cullerton's office. | Lauren FitzPatrick/Sun-Times

Vanessa Caleb Herman, a parent with children at Waters and Coonley elementary schools, holds son Teddy as she protests outside Cullerton’s office. | Lauren FitzPatrick/Sun-Times

“It’s a page, it’s one page long. It’s a very simple bill,” said Coonley Elementary parent and Local School Council member Jeff Jenkins. “And I’m not here to debate the merits of standadirzed testing. I’m just saying we need a simple policy that parents and children and educators and administrators know what happens if a child chooses to opt out. What is our policy so they are treated fairly, with dignity, with kindness, so they are not placed in an awkward and stressful position. That is simply what the bill is advocating.”

Parents of some special needs children who cannot speak as well as the youngest tested students also say the current law puts too much pressure on such students. And the opt-out advocates say Illinois already allows parents to opt their children out of a number of other educational state mandates.

The bill passed 64-47 in the House in May. While awaiting a committee assignment in the Senate, five co-sponsors, led by Education Committee Chair Sen. William Delgado (D-Chicago), have signed on.

Cullerton spokesman John Patterson said the bill remains “in the review process.”

“It will get considered for assignment along with the rest of the House Bills that have come over,” he said. He said the delay — nearly a year — is typical for bills passed so late last session.

What needs reviewing, Patterson continued, is the concern that federal funding could be jeopardized if 95 percent of eligible students statewide don’t participate in the test.

That funding risk is partly why Chicago Public Schools has encouraged parents of all 3rd- through 8th- graders and eligible high-schoolers to take PARCC. The district also says the data is useful for teachers once the results come back after the end of the year and so CPS has not supported opt-out legislation.

Parents and others picketed and protest outside - and, for awhile, inside - the Chicago office of Senate President John Cullerton on Wednesday. | Lauren FitzPatrick/Sun-Times

Parents and others picket and protest outside – and, for awhile, inside – the Chicago office of Senate President John Cullerton on Wednesday. | Lauren FitzPatrick/Sun-Times