Parent's United for Reform in Education (PURE) and their Fair Testing campaign in Chicago, Illinois

PURE's Mission, Programs, and Populations served

Parents United for Responsible Education exists to build support for and enhance the quality of public education in the city of Chicago by informing parents about educational issues, bringing the views of parents into the decision making process, and acting as an advocate for parents in their relationships with the school administration. PURE is a citywide organization, run by and for Chicago Public School parents.


PURE works actively to focus attention on the parents' perspective in any discussion of critical school problems through such means as press conferences, public testimony, and editorials. In support of this mission, PURE has engaged in a "Fair Testing Campaign," an intensive and effective effort to organize Chicago Public Schools (CPS) parents around the issue of high stakes testing in Chicago.


The following history describes the campaign and includes links to public education, press and other materials used by PURE in this and other campaigns.


Positive outcomes of PURE's Fair Testing Campaign

  • Parents have become articulate spokespeople for their children's right to be fairly evaluated for grade promotion decisions.
  • Tens of thousands of parents are more effective advocates for their children's education because they understand the limitations of standardized tests such as the Iowa test.
  • Parents won a great victory through use of the federal government's Office for Civil Rights procedures which forced major changes in the CPS student promotion policy.
  • Parents have gained a powerful tool in the right to a review of a student retention decision based on multiple measures.
  • Parents can continue to monitor CPS compliance with this federal agreement.


The history of PURE's Fair Testing Campaign

As early as June, 1997, parents began coming to PURE, angry about the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), summer school, and grade retention(holding students back in grade). We developed a relationship with FairTest, a national testing reform organization. More and more parents called us, upset about the overemphasis on testing, and what they considered to be unfair decisions to flunk their children because of one Iowa test score. We began to learn more about student testing in general and about the Iowa test in particular. We became aware of the enormous scope of problems related to high-stakes testing and student retention - that is, relying on a single test score to determine whether a student is promoted or retained in grade. The Local School Council (LSC) Summit, a local coalition of which PURE is a leading member, identified this issue as a priority for joint action.


ITBS Parent Pamphlet

The LSC Summit decided to prepare an informational pamphlet for Chicago Public School (CPS) parents about the Iowa test and the CPS mandate to rely on scores in isolation to make student grade promotion decisions. In January, 1999, we published "The Iowa Test: What Every CPS Parents Needs to Know," describing the issues and problems surrounding the use of the Iowa test in CPS. The pamphlet was published in both English and Spanish. We offered the pamphlets for free to local school councils (LSCs), and distributed some 150,000 booklets in a short time. We announced the pamphlet distribution with a press conference. One of the press conference speakers was a parent whose daughter had been affected by the testing policy. We received wide coverage in the press. We have continued to distribute these pamphlets at major events and gatherings of parents and LSC members. The clear, compelling information they provide has greatly raised the level of awareness of CPS parents about high-stakes testing in Chicago.


Presidential Scholar denied graduation

In June, 1999, PURE held a press conference in which a parent told the story of her eighth grade son, a CPS honor student who was not allowed to walk with his classmates for graduation because he missed an Iowa test cut-off score by one-tenth of a point.


We were encouraged later in the summer of 1999 when Mayor Daley publicly stated that he wanted the school system to get away from so much testing and to move toward a full evaluation of all children. But by the fall of 1999, tens of thousands of children had been held back because of their Iowa test scores alone. Many had already been flunked twice or even three times. Hundreds of children were stuck in segregated transition centers, unable to move forward until they reached a certain Iowa test score. The dropout rate for retained eighth graders reached 29%. Too many children were being hurt, and a disproportionate number of those children were black and Latino (links to reports on the failure of the city's grade retention program can be found at the bottom).


PURE calls for federal intervention

On October 21, 1999, PURE filed a discrimination complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U. S. Department of Education against the Chicago Public Schools' student promotion policy. We filed the OCR complaint because we believed our children and families needed the federal government to intervene in this matter. We charged that the CPS elementary school student promotion policy using student scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills as sole measures to determine promotion or retention had a discriminatory impact on African-American and Latino students. We contended that the CPS policy violated federal legal and civil rights laws and
principles. The policy has resulted in the retention in grade of tens of thousands of students and sent thousands more to segregated transition centers despite decades of solid research that retention does not help, and often hurts students (see FairTest fact sheet on grade retention). We provided proof that African-American and Latino students in Chicago have been the most affected under this policy. For example, PURE showed that the enrollment of African-American and Latino students in the transition centers is disproportionately high compared with their overall enrollment city wide (see report?).


In November, 1999, OCR formally notified us that we had provided enough evidence of the promotion policy's discriminatory impact for them to launch an investigation. PURE's OCR complaint generated considerable media coverage both locally and nationally. Over the next months, PURE continued to stay on top of the issue, providing OCR with new research reports showing the growing proof of the extent of damage being done to Chicago's minority children by the CPS promotion policy.


Offering a better alternative for assessment and school accountability: New ERA Plan

The LSC Summit recognized the necessity of promoting positive alternatives to the CPS testing and retention policy. The success of our fight against this policy made the development of a coherent alternative a rather pressing need. Again, we received considerable help from FairTest as we developed the New ERA Plan, the Evaluation Report for Assessment and Accountability. Summit members wrote the plan with continual feedback and advice from FairTest staff and a few other advisors. As the development process moved along, we began to "road test" the ideas and the document itself in meetings of a larger group of CPS parents, LSC members, educators, and others interested in the issues of student assessment. This group is now known as the "ERA Plan Group" and continues to meet to develop strategies for promoting this alternative proposal.


City Hall Vigil

PURE continued to bring parents together to protest the policy. Fifty people participated over the course of our week-long vigil at City Hall during the first week of May, 2000. We stood in solidarity with our children as they took their Iowa tests that week. Later that month in a press conference, some twenty-five parents presented a report card with straight "F's" for the CPS promotion policy. We brought two dozen parents to the May Board of Education meeting, expecting that their anguish about their children's situations would move the Board members to reconsider the policy. Again, these efforts yielded extensive media coverage.


Impact of OCR complaint

Late in July, 2000, CPS released a press statement that they were revising the promotion policy in a way that would give teachers more say over student promotion and retention decisions. PURE saw this as a hopeful sign that parent pressure and our OCR complaint were getting results. We were alarmed, then, when CPS refused to make the policy revision public. We called for public hearings so that parents and others could have a voice in a policy which has such a huge impact on their children's lives, on the lives of thousands of families. CPS officials dismissed that request.


Two days before the August 23, 2000, Board meeting, PURE finally got a copy of the draft revised policy. While the draft revision was twice as long as the previous policy, most of the changes were merely window dressing. The revision allowed the same high-stakes Iowa test use, and added even more barriers to promotion for some children. PURE quickly sent a letter of objection to OCR. We testified about our concerns at the Board meeting itself. Board president Gery Chico publicly dismissed our concerns. However, behind closed doors, the draft policy underwent a major overhaul. OCR monitored the revision and sent at least two clarifying letters to CPS before informing us that they considered PURE's complaint resolved.


The final revised 2000 promotion policy has the potential for real, meaningful change in how our elementary school children are assessed. Those changes include an end to the use of Iowa test scores alone to judge the progress of any student, implementation of true multiple measures to evaluate student progress, and a fair review process which CPS promised to clearly communicate to parents in a new parent manual (see fact sheet).


OCR is monitoring CPS's compliance with the agreement. They recently agreed to look into PURE's charges that CPS is violating the agreement by announcing different student evaluation criteria, and failing to provide the required parents manual.


PURE's complaint has helped raise the issue of high-stakes student testing in Chicago and across the nation: our story has been told on National Public Radio, in the Christian Science Monitor, Education Week, and The Nation.


PURE's parent training and informational activities in support of the Fair Testing Campaign


*PURE Fact Sheets

One of PURE's most effective training and informational tools is our series of PURE Fact Sheets. These are clear, one-page outlines of key issues, news, or other information. This tool has been a particularly important part of our student testing reform strategy because the CPS media effort in
support of its testing and retention policies has been so pervasive and convincing. The strong CPS media presence allowed them to define the issues ("social promotion vs retention," "high standards," etc.) and then convince the public that their positions on the issues were proper through use of misinformation, partial truth, and outright propaganda. If we were to reach and activate parents, we needed to redefine the issues and make our position clear and compelling. We prepared at least a dozen fact sheets related to the issues of testing and retention. They formed the content basis for our workshops and presentations and were widely distributed at those events and through our newsletters.



PURE publishes four regular newsletters: PENCIL (our membership newsletter: circulation 500); PURE Tips and Updates for LSCs (our LSC newsletter: current circulation is 7,000 from a home address list of all April, 2000 LSC election candidates); Inform de PURE, the Spanish language digest of PENCIL and Tips and Updates, which is distributed in our workshops and other events; and PURE Preschool Update (circulation 600 preschool teachers). All of these newsletters are published quarterly. We also distribute another several hundred copies of our newsletters at workshops, conferences, and other events where parents gather. PENCIL, Tips and Updates, and Inform de PURE have carried articles related to testing reform in every issue for the past two years. The Summer 2000 issue of Tips and Updates contained a special insert devoted to testing issues. The Preschool Update has offered occasional pieces related to appropriate assessment of young children. The wide distribution of these PURE publications has had a significant impact on the testing debate.


*Cable TV specials

PURE learned a wile ago that one of the best ways to reach a lot of our constituents is through cable TV. We began producing a weekly show on the local Chicago cable access channel 21 two years ago and the response has been strongly positive. Parents who are not "tuned in" to their school's LSC and so do not find out about educational issues from our newsletters or other LSC work are finding PURE by channel surfing, and now even tuning the show in on purpose! The popularity of our weekly show, and the concern of the cable access leaders that there are few programs with educational messages, led to an opportunity for us to create special hour?long studio shows.


The format requires gathering a studio audience and a panel with a moderator, and, in two cases, adding a live telephone call-in feature. This is an especially challenging format for us media novices but a chance for great exposure the shows are broadcast live but then repeated several times over the course of the month, and often in subsequent months, on several municipal cable access stations. In addition to three shows on LSC concerns, we produced three shows on testing reform issues (two in English, one in Spanish). These shows turned out to be very powerful. The panelists, who included teachers, students, and parents, gave testimony about the negative effects of high-stakes testing on children and their education. Members of the studio audience added their stories and statements, and the comments and questions from callers to the program confirmed that in Chicago, people are really seeing the truth about what is happening in our schools.