By Grant Pick

In February a group of juniors at Whitney Young Magnet High School decided to flunk their annual Illinois Goals Assessment Program exams as a protest against what they see as too many standardized tests and too much class time spent preparing for those tests. “So much emphasis is placed on testing that it’s destructive to the process of education,” insists Will Tanzman, the ringleader of the group.

“One or two tests would be fine, but we’re talking about five tests since we started at Whitney Young,” says Charles Ansell, one of the protesters. Those tests include the IGAP, which is being replaced by the ISAT (Illinois Standards Achievement Test), a yearly assessment that compares the performances of schools in Illinois; the TAP (Test of Achievement and Proficiency) tests, proficiency exams in reading and math ordered by the Board of Education; the PSAT, a preparatory exam for the SAT; the CASE (Chicago Academic Standards Examinations) test, a new board instrument that assesses a high school student’s mastery of core subjects and counts toward final course grades; and the NEDTs (National Educational Development Tests), diagnostic exams that Whitney Young used to give to freshmen to help place them in classes at an appropriate level.

The IGAP protesters contend that the tests are not what education should be about. “Learning to me means trying to analyze things and to write and express your thoughts in a convincing and creative way,” says Tanzman, an A student. He thinks that spending his grammar-school years at the private, progressive Francis W. Parker School may be one reason he’s not impressed with rote instruction and standardized tests, yet the protesters who went to public schools feel the same way. “I never really respected standardized tests,” says John Edgerton, who attended Ray Elementary School in Hyde Park. “They wasted my time, gave me a headache, and made me pull out my hair.” He also claims that his lousy handwriting on an early test locked him into a learning-disabled program at Ray for four years. “During all that time I saw myself as below the bar,” he says.

Tanzman thinks standardized tests lower the self-esteem of students who do poorly on them. “I have this friend, and because his score on the verbal section of the PSAT was poor, he felt he wasn’t smart. Now he’s weird in English class, feeling he isn’t going to do well there.”

“Our teachers also waste significant amounts of class time preparing us for these tests,” says Ansell. “Last year I had four practice tests before the math IGAP.” Before the writing IGAP, Ansell’s English teacher drummed home a five-paragraph model for crafting an essay that was clearly meant to impress state scorers. “We were supposed to start with a thesis, continue with three paragraphs of exegesis, bring up counterarguments in the fourth paragraph, and then come to a conclusion,” he says. “It was stressed that if we went to six graphs–if we wrote what’s considered an unconventional essay–we’d hurt our score.”

The protesters became even more annoyed when signs appeared around the school after Christmas break encouraging students to do well on the IGAP. “Zap the IGAP,” read one. “Let’s remain number one,” read another, referring to the school’s standing as the top-scoring high school in Chicago. Another poster stated that last year Whitney Young’s scores on the tenth-grade IGAPs trailed only those of Winnetka’s New Trier High School.

“We’d been relatively complacent,” says Tanzman, “but one day we realized we could have an effect here.” A week or so before the IGAPs were scheduled, Tanzman drafted a letter about the protest and circulated it among his friends. Together they decided to try to get zeros on their 11th-grade IGAPs. “Picketing the tests would have gotten us suspended,” says Ansell. “But if we organized people to get zeros, there wasn’t much the administration could do. It would be an ex post facto thing.”

Some of their friends chose not to participate out of fear that their parents or school higher-ups would be angry. Others balked because a zero on the IGAPs might hurt their chances of getting into the college they wanted; beginning this year, IGAP scores are to be included on a student’s permanent high school record.

“Anyway, we wanted a small number of folks involved,” says Tanzman, “because we didn’t actually want to hurt the school.” By his count, eight students deliberately blew the social studies IGAP on February 2 and ten failed the science exam the next day.

The students used different tactics to fail. “I went through the test, figured out the right answers, and then put down the wrong ones,” says Edgerton. Ansell marked two answers for every item, and Tanzman alternated leaving his answer sheet blank and marking down two answers.

“We refuse to feed this test-taking frenzy,” wrote Tanzman in a joint letter signed and submitted to Principal Joyce Kenner after the exams. “The school and the school system should show its superiority through the quality of its education and the accomplishments of its students rather than the numbers of its test scores.”

Tanzman, Ansell, Edgerton, and some of their cohorts were promptly summoned to Kenner’s office, where she, two assistant principals, and a counselor heard them make their case. Ansell remembers an assistant principal turning to him, a member of Whitney Young’s celebrated academic decathlon team, and saying, “Why would you do this?” Tanzman recalls, “They said we were anarchists, and they compared us to Timothy McVeigh.” Kenner recalls the anarchist remark, though not the McVeigh one. She says she did tell the protesters, “I can sympathize with you, but we have little input on what exams are given–and a student has to do well for himself and the school. Do you understand the impact this will have on our school?”

She also says, “I believe that students are being overtested, and the Chicago Public Schools and the state need to look at what they’re requiring of students. I can sympathize with what these students did, but I can’t admire it–it was selfish, since this impacts their school, which they have chosen to attend. Whitney Young is an academic powerhouse, and I’d think its students would want to remain so into infinity. If our scores drop, what it will say to the public is that our staff isn’t teaching. And our teachers do a marvelous job in the classroom.”

The meeting in Kenner’s office ended without the students being disciplined. “I didn’t want to be punitive about this,” she says, “especially with this caliber of student.” She told schools CEO Paul Vallas about the protest. “He was disappointed,” she says. “And I’m just going to stick with that description.”

Tanzman, Edgerton, and Ansell aren’t terribly concerned about zeros ending up on their transcripts. “I’m sure colleges will notice this,” says Ansell, who plans to apply to Ivy League schools. “But you can bring it up during your interview–it will add to your personality.”

Carole Perlman, the board’s director of student assessment, says she’s never heard of such a protest happening in Chicago before. “I’ve heard stories about this sort of thing–about kids making answer bubbles in the shape of a Christmas tree or writing down words you can’t repeat in a family newspaper. But has it ever occurred? I don’t know.” The state board’s Tom Hernandez says the Whitney Young protest is the first organized protest of the IGAP he’s heard of in the test’s ten-year history.

Perlman says that relying more on tests reflects “a recent emphasis on standards and accountability, which isn’t unique to Chicago.” And she doesn’t believe that emphasis is excessive. She says that a study undertaken last year for the National Association of Test Directors, which included Chicago, determined that less than half of 1 percent of class time on average is spent on testing.

Teachers may prep their students for tests, says Perlman, but the board advises them not to. “We encourage schools to follow the regular curriculum. Teachers ought to stress critical-thinking skills–we want kids to make predictions and be able to compare and contrast–in the context of the regular curriculum.” And, she says, if test taking punctures some students’ self-esteem, it also inflates the self-esteem of other youngsters by giving them “a genuine feeling that they have accomplished something.”

Principal Kenner has asked a state board committee to toss out the tests of seven of the students involved in the protest. If the tests aren’t thrown out, Whitney Young’s junior IGAP totals in science and social studies will drop slightly, and with them, perhaps, the school’s standing.

The reaction to the protest has been mixed at Whitney Young. “My U.S. history teacher said she thought I had sabotaged the school by affecting future classes,” says Ansell, “while another teacher sat quietly by and gave me a thumbs-up.” Tanzman says an English teacher applauded the protesters for presenting “a perfect illustration of civil disobedience. This other teacher thought that if we’d done this on the PSAT it would have affected us personally, but since we blew the IGAP, by which the school is rated, we were being self-centered. But I’ve had other people tell me that our actions have given them a new perspective–that a test shouldn’t affect the rest of your life, that it doesn’t measure your worth.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Charles Ansell, John Edgerton, Will Tazman photo by Katchy Richland.