Students Say ‘Enough!

Chicago high schoolers say they will no longer feed the test-talking frenzy.

The following is the text of the letter from students at Whitney Young High School explaining why they deliberately failed the Illinois Goals Assessment Program tests (see “One Size Fits Few”). This letter was distributed at Whitney Young in February at the time of the tests.

To Whom It May Concern:

Some concerned students are weary of standardized tests and all of the baggage with which they come. Although tests are useful for giving some sort of “objective” account of some types of achievement, enough is enough. This year, the junior class has wasted a significant amount of class time preparing for and taking three different standardized tests. Since we have been in high school, we have taken probably ten, including the PSAT, IGAP, TAP, CASE, NEDT, and several others whose names have been forgotten in the swirl of acronyms. The actual administration of the test is not the only problem; the whole school day on which the test comes is wasted because the shortened periods do not allow teachers enough time to accomplish anything and many teachers do not want to give work that might conceivably cause stress during the tests. An inordinate amount of time is also consumed in the preparation teachers are forced to give us before each test. All this time could be spent giving us a real education instead of teaching us how to take multiple-choice tests.

Of even greater concern is the message Whitney Young’s emphasis on test scores gives to students. Pressuring everybody to do well on the tests makes people think that the tests are much more important than they really are. Most of these tests measure very narrow types of learning; there is a definite skill to answering multiple-choice questions that is independent of any useful education, and even the essays are very specifically formatted to see how well we can regurgitate the five-paragraph format drilled into our heads since grammar school. You, the administration and the school board, are telling us that these are the skills we should be pursuing. Free thought and originality seem to have no place in the tests that you so proudly parade as proof of Whitney Young’s and the Chicago Public School system’s excellence.

The consequences of this foolhardy stress on test scores reach into the self-confidence of many. Students know the administration of the school is preoccupied with test scores. Many of our academic teachers have some sort of test score right next to our names on the roster. That score is the first impression they have of us; we are reduced to numbers. Countless students consider themselves “dumb” merely because a multiple-choice test tells them they are. High-achieving students compare test scores with each other and feel they have to compete to see who can get the best mark. Sometimes it seems people live up to the expectations placed on them. If you continue to tell students who do not score well on tests that their scores show they are deficient, they will continue to do poorly on the tests and often in their classes as well. It is a vicious spiral perpetuated by the administration of this school and the school system.

To the administration of Whitney Young, we do understand that these tests are forced upon the school. However, the proper response to harmful requirements is to largely ignore them. We do not need to be spending time preparing for these tests and in doing so further legitimizing them in the minds of both students at Whitney Young and administrators at the Board of Education. In a Student Union meeting at which this issue was brought up, you told us you had done all you could, and it was time for us to take action. Now we are.

That is why some students will fail the IGAP today. We refuse to feed this test-taking frenzy. We ask that the time and energy spent on standardized tests be reduced to the minimum possible. Teachers should be discouraged from teaching the answers to the tests except when the skills and knowledge form a part of the curriculum those teachers are trying to teach. The school and the school system should show its academic superiority through the quality of its education and the accomplishments of its students rather than the numbers on its test scores.

Will Tanzman et al.