2 letters re: Chicago schools boycotting the ISAT

We report here two letters regarding the situation where teachers at two Chicago Public Schools are refusing to administer the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests, the testing window for which opens next week. The letters (#1 and #2) were made available by WBEZ (NPR in Chicago).

We reported previously that teachers at Saucedo Elementary School would refuse to administer the tests, and now, teachers at Drummond Montessori in the Bucktown neighborhood have joined their colleagues in the protest.

The letters from school leaders are predictable. It is not likely that political leaders will advise any citizens to break the law, but teachers nationwide are saying they have had enough of poorly written standardized tests taking away too much instruction time from their students, for whom they care deeply. I don’t condone a violation of the law, and I believe all the loud noise about opting out of tests or boycotting them has caused good people to overlook obvious solutions that won’t run afoul of federal law but will produce a unified voice in protest of standardized tests.

Consider this: Kids have to be given the ISAT, but it is a bigger violation of the law for teachers or any school official to tell students what to write in the test. Teachers are required by law to “administer” the tests, but the law doesn’t say that students have to “write” in the test booklet.

Therefore, if any teacher, principal, or CEO even comes close to ordering students to write (in the answer spaces) or to hinting at what they should or should not write in the test booklet, this would be an obvious violation of the law and would be considered cheating or providing aid to a student during the administration of an achievement test mandated under federal law, just as if the teacher had written in the test booklet herself.

The protest will have to come from the students, which is what school is supposed to be about anyway. As we have turned the focus away from students and toward data, we have developed laws that support an anti-student agenda. That needs to change, but I do not advise teachers or school officials to disobey the law in the meantime.

Anyway, giving equal voice to both sides, we present the letters from Chicago and Springfield below. Letter #1 is dated Feb 27 and is written by schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett to principals in the district. Letter #2 is dated Feb 28 and is signed by Illinois Superintendent of Public Instruction Christopher A Koch and state board President Chico. It’s addressed to Ms Byrd-Bennett.


Dear Principals,

As we head into ISAT administration next week, we want to make sure all staff members are clear on the requirements around this test and the repercussions for not administering it. We also want to clear up misinformation that is circulating in the district.


  • The time spent on the ISAT is less than 1% of the entire school year.
  • The test DOES NOT take up the entire 2-week window as some would claim. It takes about 3 hours each for reading and math, and 2 hours for science in only grades 4 and 7. (See here and here—page 6, and here—“ISAT Summary” for more details). The 2-week window allows for maximum flexibility in scheduling at the school level, and for make-up testing of students who were absent. Make-ups do not interrupt the instructional time of other students as they are conducted in a separate room.
  • ISAT is not a drain on the CPS budget because CPS pays nothing for it.
  • Although ISAT will not be used for accountability, selective enrollment or student promotion, it is not meaningless. It will be completely aligned to the Common Core standards in both the range of skills assessed and the depth of student-response expectations in writing. This will provide educators an important first look at how well their students are doing on these more rigorous expectations. Other current assessments do not offer this depth of information.


  • Federal and State law require all students to be assessed in grades 3 – 8.
  • Schools with low testing participation are in jeopardy of losing federal funding as this test is a required component of NCLB.
  • ISBE may review the accreditation of schools with low testing percentages.
  • Low percentage participation will also affect AYP status.
  • If an individual teacher refuses to administer the test, you should direct that teacher to swipe out and leave the work place. You should direct another employee to administer the test.
  • Notify your staff that:

The State Certification Board may take action to revoke the certification of any employee who encourages a student to boycott the ISAT.

The Chicago Board of Education will discipline any employee who encourages a student not to take the ISAT or who advocates against the ISAT on work time for insubordination and for any disruption of the educational process.

If parents or students make unsolicited inquiries regarding testing or opting out, staff shall explain that the ISAT is required by state and federal law and Board policy, and shall refer the questioner to school administrators to address any further inquiry or request.

It is critical that all parents, students and staff understand these potential repercussions. While employees may voice their opinions on matters of public concern, they have an obligation as government employees not to undermine or interfere with state and federal law and with Illinois/CPS Testing policies by encouraging students to opt out.

Please direct any additional questions about testing policy to Didi Swartz (773-553-1161 or cmswartz@cps.edu). Please direct questions on potential repercussions to Tom Krieger (773-553-1193 or tkrieger@cps.edu) or David Ruhland (773-553-2321 or druhland@cps.edu).

[Signed] Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Chief Executive Officer, Chicago Public Schools


Dear Ms. Byrd-Bennett,

Districts and schools are required to administer the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) under both federal and state law and any district or school that does not comply with those legal requirements faces possible local and state disciplinary action and runs the risk of reduced state and federal funds.

The ISAT measures the achievement of students in reading and mathematics in grades three through eight and science in grades four and seven. It produces data used for local and state analysis and school improvement planning. It is a test that is used statewide for local, state and federal purposes.

At the local level, the ISATs can help parents and educators at districts and schools assess how well their students are meeting benchmarks set under the new Illinois Learning Standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics, benchmarks that should be guiding classroom lessons across the state this year. Additionally, the ISAT results will show whether or not students and schools are making progress under new, higher performance levels, or cut scores, that were implemented for the 2013 ISATs. Last year, many schools saw their ISAT scores drop, as expected under the new expectations. The 2014 ISAT results should show parents and local educators how well students fared again, after another year, against these new, higher performance levels.

Finally, the ISATs help parents and educators view how their students are doing compared to other students in the state. In the case of Saucedo Elementary Scholastic Academy, last year’s state data shows that 57 percent of students met or exceeded standards in 2013 compared to the state average of 59 percent of students meeting and exceeding standards. Next year, The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) will provide results that can be compared not only across Illinois but across the nation and internationally as this assessment system is better aligned to international benchmarks. As parents, educators and policy makers, this data is invaluable as we all work to ensure that our children are on track to compete and collaborate with their peers in our global economy.

The ISAT data will also contribute to our state’s new growth metric, showing how much progress schools made from last year to this year in improving student achievement. In the case of Saucedo Elementary Scholastic Academy, the 2013 ISATs showed that Saucedo had higher than average growth (improvement over 2012 ISATs) in reading and math. The 2014 results will show if that trend continues for Saucedo. To see the school’s report card, click here: http://www.illinoisreportcard.com/School.aspx?schoolId=150162990252829.

The 2014 ISATs will provide information about how well students are performing at grade level and how well they respond to 100 percent of the questions being connected to the new Illinois Learning Standards. Next year, students will face questions on the PARCC, which have been completely designed and aligned to the new Illinois Learning Standards. Through the ISATs, students get access to the sorts of questions that they will be asked to complete again in 2014-15 although the PARCC will likely be even more rigorous, with more questions that test higher-order thinking. We believe parents would want their children to have access to these sorts of questions this year, before taking the PARCC next school year.

It’s important to note that we are talking about 6 hours of testing for grades 3, 5, 6 and 8, and 8 hours of testing for 4th and 7th graders who also take the science portion of the ISAT. This is less than 1 percent of the time that students are in school in a given year. Students with IEPs get additional time to take the tests. We offer a two-week testing window to give schools flexibility in offering the test and allow enough time for make-up days but students, by no means, are testing for a week or two weeks.

Again, it’s incumbent on districts to administer the ISATs. Districts face lower public school recognition status, threatening receipt of state funds, if they break the law and don’t administer the ISATs and risk receipt of federal funds, such as Title funds to help children from low income families, if they break federal law and don’t administer the ISATs. Additionally, teachers and administrators that willingly refuse to comply with federal and state law face local disciplinary action and possible action by the State Licensure Board.

[Signed] Christopher A. Koch, Ed.D., State Superintendent of Education, and
Gery J. Chico, Chairman (of the Illinois State Board of Education)

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.