Pencils down. No more filling in bubbles. The time has come to opt out of high stakes testing. Students in Pennsylvania start taking the PSSAs next week. That means everything on the classroom walls and in the halls must come down, turning our schools into drab, warehouse-like spaces for the next two months. Heaven forbid a student goes to the bathroom during a high-stakes-test and sees a colorful poster in the hallway that helps her fill in a bubble.
|PSSA WRITING||MARCH 11-15, 2013||5, 8, 11|
|WRITING MAKE UPS||MARCH 18-22, 2013||AS NEEDED|
|PSSA MATH AND READING||APRIL 8-19, 2013||3-8, 11|
|PSSA-M* MATH AND READING||APRIL 8-19, 2013||4-8, 11|
|PSSA SCIENCE||APRIL 22-26, 2013||4, 8, 11|
|PSSA-M* SCIENCE||APRIL 22-26, 2013||8, 11|
|MATH, READING, AND SCIENCE MAKEUPS||APRIL 29-MAY 3, 2013||AS NEEDED|
|*modified for some special education students|
High-stakes-tests like the PSSAs are not about student learning. And they are certainly not quality assessments: the tests themselves are riddled with problems, continue to be highly culturally biased, and the results are not even reported until the next fall. This is not meaningful data for teachers to use in teaching their students, and it’s not meaningful data for parents interested in how their children are doing in school. What these tests do instead is create a culture of failure and blame: accusing our teachers of poor performance when students do not do well, and then labeling our schools as failures, and threatening to close them down.
Those who choose to opt their children out of high-stakes-testing are not opposed to quality assessment. Teachers need to give tests so they know what students are learning. The problem is the high-stakes in high-stakes-testing, which has radically changed education over the past decade. Under the mandates of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, high-stakes testing has effectively created the system of “teaching to the test” and “canned curricula.” Teachers have far less control over their classrooms, while students spend more and more time preparing for tests and practicing test-taking skills. Ironically, the impact has been an actual decrease in real learning. While students have mastered test-taking skills, they are not mastering content.
We have watched high-stakes-testing dramatically narrow our school curricula with its laser focus on reading and math. To be sure, these are essential skills but students have lost music, art, foreign languages, history, science, and much more in the quest for higher standardized test scores in these two areas. The Great Recession has exacerbated the situation as schools faced massive budget cuts and were forced to eliminate programs, keeping only those classes that would be measured on the tests. And the stakes are so high – with teacher’s being evaluated on test scores and schools threatened with closure – that now we have a plague of cheating scandals as desperate students, teachers, school districts, and even states try to game the system. Just this past fall, Pennsylvania’s own state secretary of education got caught trying to cheat.
These high-stakes-tests have created a perverse system that is actually harming our kids. In the past year, I have heard countless stories from teachers about the damage they are required to inflict on our children – special education students forced to take these tests with no accommodations, literally banging their heads bloody on their desks in frustration. Or students hiding under their desks sobbing in tears upon receiving test results that seem to suggest they are “stupid.” Or children with stress-related stomach problems and insomnia from the pressures they feel from schools and administrators. And teachers stepping into the hallways to cry, dry their tears, and go back into their classrooms to do what their jobs tell them they must do but they know is wrong. (The final clincher for me personally in deciding to opt my children out of high-stakes-testing came when I read Sheila May-Stein’s account of administering these harmful tests and this piece by Katie Osgood, who teaches special education in a Chicago psychiatric hospital.)
There’s a way to fight back and end this madness. The national Opt Out movement has been growing quickly and taken root here in Southwest PA this year. Parents from Mt. Lebanon to Westmoreland County have been talking to each other will be taking their children out of high-stakes-tests. In the city of Pittsburgh, the movement has been spreading fast in just these past few weeks to Phillips, Linden, CAPA, Liberty, Colfax, Montessori, Sci-Tech, and beyond. Here are some Yinzercation pieces and other resources those families have been sharing:
- “Testing and More Testing” – an introduction to international tests score panics and the new Keystone Exams
- “The VAM Sham” – how testing is hurting our teachers
- “National Opt Out Day” – an overview of the national movement
- “Out Opt FAQs” – a long list of FAQs raised by Yinzercation folks on the blog and Facebook
- “What Education Activism Looks Like” and “Fighting on Many Fronts” – updates on the national movement, especially the incredible movement in Seattle started by teachers and in Portland by students
- “Who’s In to Opt Out?” – our call to action on this issue!
- “No More Whoohoo” – Dr. Tim Slekar’s moving testimony about Opt Out from the Rally for Public Education, with a link to his video segment
- The United Opt Out website has sample letters and other helpful information.
- The national organization FairTest has a good resource page.
- Dr. Tim Slekar explains the nuts-and-bolts of opt-out in a recent blog piece on @TheChalkFace
- Opt Out Flyer 1: Tests Not Helping Education (this and the next two made by Pittsburgh Montessori parent Elaine Rybski)
- Opt Out Flyer 2: Myths vs. Facts
- Opt Out Quiz: Test Results
So how do you opt out? It’s simple. Make an appointment to meet with your school’s testing coordinator (every school assigns a staff member to this role – it could be a teacher or the principal). Ask to review a copy of the PSSA. You can take the time to read the test, or simply hand over your prepared Opt Out letter, which can be as short as: “Dear Superintendent _________, Pursuant to Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4 (d)(5) I am hereby exercising my right as a parent to have my child, [insert name here], excused from PSSA testing because of religious and philosophical beliefs. Signed ________.” Pennsylvania will only accept exemptions for “religious” reasons, but philosophical beliefs fall in this category – and the state is forbidden by law to ask about your religion.
Please feel free to spread this “Opt Out Toolkit” to your networks. And stay in touch on this blog and on the Yinzercation Facebook page to let us know who is participating and at which schools. We will coordinate a press release to get the word out to the media.
Enough is enough with high-stakes-testing. Time’s up.