Blog by Mason Johnson

Principals were against it. Teachers were against it. Parents were against it. Even the Chicago Teacher’s Union and Chicago Public Schools agreed: PARCC is terrible.

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That’s the word Chicago Principals and Administrators Association President Clarice Berry used when I talked to her last week for my article, “Confusion Continues Over Standardized Testing In Chicago.” Having met with Chicago’s top education officials, Clarice told me they all felt PARCC is “terrible.” That is not to say that all of these people were taking a staunch stance against standardized testing. Mostly, they felt that the test, which is premiering for the first time this year, wasn’t ready. Lengthy and technology heavy for many of the grades that have to take it, PARCC seems too convoluted and Illinois schools seem too short on resources for local officials to recommend we dive in headfirst in 2015.

Yet, faced with the threat of losing over a billion dollars in state and federal funding, CPS has decided to push PARCC citywide. Originally, the city was only going to conduct a pilot program with 10 percent of Chicago schools.

One teacher I talked to, who’s so worried their classroom won’t have the technology needed for PARCC that they instructed their children to bring certain items from home, is concerned about the time lost.

“If it were a test that would give results to drive my instruction and that I could analyze I think it would be a great tool,” this teacher confided. “Two weeks of lost instruction makes me sad.”

In a letter to the State Board last week, the Chicago Board of Education and CPS stated that while they believe PARCC will eventually be a “valid measure of achievement,” administering PARCC this year offers few benefits. Sure, it will prepare kids to navigate the PARCC software, but won’t be able to measure their knowledge. That’s not a lot of payoff for two weeks of lost instructional time.

“Our students are being used as guinea pigs,” another teacher told me.

“They have [third to fifth graders] testing [with] paper and pencil for 80 to 90 minutes at a stretch. Asking questions and doing things they have not been asked to do in a testing situation before,” the same teacher told me. “This has no purpose for our kids. Doesn’t count for anything and won’t be scored until summer or beyond.”

When I asked one principal how disastrous PARCC could be for some schools, they replied, “I would bet that people will make it through. Honestly, I can’t imagine fumbling through it so poorly that kids actually don’t get tested. … But it is certainly a disruption to instruction.”

Who should parents, many of whom shared their dismay with PARCC in a petition late last year, blame?

Everyone.

Despite problems with Common Core across the country, the White House and Secretary of Education (and ex-CEO of CPS) Arne Duncan are offering few options for states but to move forward full steam ahead, regardless of the problems they face and the valuable teaching time they’re going to lose.

The Illinois State Board of Education, instead of standing with the many Illinois schools and thousands of parents opposing PARCC, has shown little backbone. Mostly, they’ve continued to emphasize the money schools could lose if they don’t test their students.

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And while the city seemed to have schoolchildren’s backs, it’s clear that they couldn’t withstand the risk of losing such a large amount of money. On one hand, this is forgivable. Who wouldn’t waver at the thought of losing over a billion dollars?

On the other hand, many have questioned the politics of the situation, especially those privy to the inner-workings of CPS. For weeks, Chicago had publicly stayed true to their mantra that a fraction of Chicago schools will be subjected to PARCC. Yet, within CPS, principals were told that each and every school has to be ready. And while some will chalk this up to foresight — CPS ensuring they’re prepared for the worst — others will see ill intentions. Other will look at the hectic planning, the mixed messages CPS gave to principals and teachers, and assume the worst.

And some teachers who talked to me did assume the worst. Their relationship with the city and CPS having already gone through the wringer, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that this wasn’t the fight the city claims, but a lie.

“I just wanted to let you know that CPS is definitely gearing up to give the PAARC no matter what they are saying in the press,” said one teacher, who contacted me in a panic Tuesday morning of last week. “I think they are waiting until after the election to announce, but we already have a testing schedule and a mandatory meeting for it this week.”

Having talked to many sources close to the story, I assured this teacher that this was very unlikely. And since it seemed so unlikely (and since there was little evidence to this accusation), I didn’t include it in my article last week.

Then this week happened. And Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Mayor Emanuel’s handpicked Chicago Board of Education decided to go against what they said, announcing they were going to administer PARCC throughout Chicago.

Clearly, I bet on the wrong horse …

Mayor Emanuel’s office replied to the decision today, with Emanuel saying, “There’s no other way to say it. They were going to cut off the resources. It was either take the test or [else].”

Still, many questions remain: How much of the decision was up to Mayor Emanuel? Did he try to twist his buddy Arne Duncan’s arm into helping us out? Did he try to pick a fight with the Illinois State Board of Education? It’s possible he did all of this, it’s possible he did none of it, and it’s possible the intention was to test all Chicago schoolchildren all along, but to wait to announce it until after the February 24th election to save face (and votes).

Possible … but extremely unlikely. And as reported by the Chicago Sun-Times today, School Board President David Vitale has denied that the upcoming mayoral runoff between Mayor Emanuel and Jesus Chuy Garcia had anything to do with the decision to push PARCC citywide.

Still, considering Mayor Emanuel’s acrimonious relationship with our city’s educators, it’s easy to understand why teachers would assume the worst.

With the majority of voters declaring they want an elected — as opposed to an appointed — school board, hopefully change is coming to Chicago’s educational landscape.

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Mason Johnson is a Web Content Producer for CBS Chicago. You can find him on Twitter.