When Amanda Piker, of Manteno, took practice exams of Illinois' new standardized test she decided they were too hard, so she told her two children not to take them. This is the first year students across the state took the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam.
"It does not reflect what my children know and what they learned this year," said Piker, whose children attend schools in Manteno Community Unit School District 5. "I challenge anybody to take that practice test."
Instead of taking the exam with their classmates, her fourth-grade son and eighth-grade daughter read books. Some parents and several state legislatures across the nation have taken a similar stand. It's come to be known as the "opt out" movement, which aims to eliminate the use of standardized testing in schools.
"This is not what education is about," said Piker, who is spearheading a group of local parents in a boycott.
In Manteno, there were five Manteno Elementary School students whose parents refused the test, according to Matthew Glenn, the school's principal. In Chicago and the suburbs, there were hundreds spread widely across geographic areas.
"I think we had a lot less students refuse than we had anticipated," said Cathy Creek, Manteno's curriculum director. "We were pretty comfortable with the way things went this year. We will continue to encourage those parents to have their children take the test."
The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a national nonprofit which advises parents on how to refuse tests, said opting out is, "a powerful way to resist No Child Left Behind and the way standardized testing distorts and corrupts K-12 classrooms."
Taking a stand
High-stakes standardized tests have often been criticized for focusing schools too much on test preparation and being an unfair and inaccurate measure of student performance. The PARCC exam was developed to address some of those criticisms.
The new exam moves beyond the rote memorization and answer-finding of the old standardized tests, including the Illinois Standards Achievement Test and Prairie State Achievement Exam. It requires students to answer different types of questions, show their work and explain their reasoning.
But it is also much harder than the old tests, local educators say.
"A lot of people view it as wonderful, and I respect that," Piker said. "When my kids took the practice test with me they were like, 'What the heck? It's not like the homework.' And my kids don't make bad grades."
Piker is hardly unique. There are 20 states with laws addressing opt outs.
They include a range of actions from allowing parents to opt out to suspending the test entirely. In Illinois, House Bill 306, which would allow students to opt out with the written permission of their parents, is currently in a committee, but is yet to pass to the full floor.
The Illinois State Board of Education included a note in the bill that it would cost the state about $1 billion in federal education aid if the state fails to get a 95 percent compliance rate on the test. Piker and opt out advocates in other states have rebuffed the claim, saying federal law does not link funding to testing.
The more immediate concern is how students who opt out should be handled.
Piker said local parents have contacted the American Civil Liberties Union in Illinois to monitor their activity in the event they are treated unfairly. Some opt out advocates have framed the right to reject the test as a constitutional issue.
Ed Yohnka, ACLU spokesman, said his organization is keeping an eye on complaints but has seen only "a small handful" of calls from across the state.
"We've been logging in people as they call in, but we haven't done anything in terms of the issue," Yohnka said. "We want to know how widespread the objection is."
Creek said ISBE has asked schools to treat students who reject the test in the same manner as those who don't. In Manteno's case, it meant reading a book, the same activity students who finish the test early are directed to do. She said the district will likely handle opt outs the same way in the future.
Kris Mazeika, of Manteno, said her third-grade boy and her fourth-grade girl were allowed to read a book and do classwork. She felt it was a much better use of time than taking a standardized test. But when it came to the class party for students who completed the test, her son was sent to the principal's office.
"I'm sorry, that's a punishment in the eyes of the third-grader," Mazeika said. "I was beyond mad. It was like bullying a kid."
Glenn said he was confident in the decision. Mazeika's son was allowed to read a book, but she came to pick him up early from school.
"When we have an incentive party students have to earn the incentive," Glenn said. "If they don't, there's a different route to take."