Time’s Up

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
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
*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:

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.

14 thoughts on “Time’s Up

  1. Great post. I am a testing coordinator, and I would love to receive a pile of these “opt out” forms.

    I wonder what the consequences would be if teachers and administrators openly encouraged students to hand these in?

  2. “I wonder what the consequences would be if teachers and administrators openly encouraged students to hand these in?”
    Be Proactive!! Have teachers in your district follow Seattle’s teachers…encourage parents and students to opt- Out!! Force the conversation about the worthiness of testing by encouraging students Not to take the tests.

  3. Bless you testing coordinator! One hesitation I hear from parents thinking of opting out is that teachers will be upset. I spoke directly to my teachers and have discovered more reasons to opt out than I originally thought. A math teacher told me that the required 4th grade curriculum allows for 2 lessons in division (because there are only 3 questions on the math PSSA). This teacher is in a real bind when deciding between moving on to the next lesson (when the class clearly hasn’t mastered division) or staying with division and receiving a low score on the RISE observation (for not teaching the correct lesson). The 5th grade math teacher is required to teach 6th grade math this year but also teaches 5th grade math because that’s what is on the PSSA test. UPREP kids are in Algebra 2, but it was discovered that the teachers are teaching Algebra 1 (so the kids can pass the Keystone). To fix this, these kids will continue with Algebra 1 this year (to pass the test) and next year, they will have a double block of Algebra 2 (so it can fit into 1 semester). Hmmm…is this how you want your kids to learn Algebra 2? Teachers are afraid right now to say much…I get it. Parents, listen to the teachers that are speaking and opt your kids out. The PSSA data is meaningless and tells you nothing about your kids learning. You, the teacher and your kid will never know what questions were answered incorrectly. Please ask your teachers to give you the results of the many formative assessments your kids will take this year.

  4. I was told today that we need to say more then “I opt out for religious beliefs.” I was told we needed to list specific reasons for opting out. Is this really true?
    Do we *have* to see the test to opt out of it?

    • According to Dr. Tim Slekar, who has been opting his children out for several years now, this brief letter is all that is needed. The tests are now at the schools (they were delivered last week). When you go in to meet with the testing coordinator, you can choose to look at the test or not – and then submit your letter there on the spot, if you wish.

  5. What about those of us whose kids didn’t test into gifted but do very well on these tests? My understanding is that PSSA scores are used when determining eligibility to take CAS classes at the high school level. I wish I could do this, but I’m afraid I’d be limiting my child’s options, especially in the future at the high school level. He’s in 6th grade now, and his high PSSA was a factor in placing him in advanced math.

    • What we should all be demanding is quality assessments that measure real student learning, that teachers can use to help students, and that parents can use to understand where their children are … it’s the high stakes we must get rid of (and the damaging culture it has created in our schools), not testing altogether.

  6. There is an error in this post. Most 11th grade students do not take the PSSA exam. In fact I do not think any do. They are now taking the Keystone exams. They have already taken them once this year, but the testing window will open again May 13th for any student who did not pass the exam the first time, which is many of the the students.

    • The chart here came from the PDE website – not sure why they haven’t posted better info. Terry Kennedy writes, “Starting this year our high school students have been taking Keystone exams. Waves 1 & 2 have already passed, and were used to test students on material from classes they had in past years.” Looks like May 15-21 will be the Keystone Algebra, Literature and Biology Testing for students in grades 8-11 (note: 8th graders enrolled in Algebra or Geometry will take the Keystone Exam in May). Bottom line: too many tests! Too many high stakes.

  7. Do they really need to cover up all decorations in the classroom and hallways?

    I’m so glad that we have another year before this impacts our family directly (although it’s clear from my daughter’s correspondence folder, in which there’s a weekly PSSA test prep quiz every week, that it’s never too early!). I really need to learn more about what opting out will mean for the school. I worry that unless opting out is done at a critical mass level, it might backfire.

  8. I have children in 6th & 8th grades. Our oldest has an IEP due to some learning disabilities. She’s not in LS classrooms, but is in reg educ rooms that have paras & has accommodations/supports in there. I understand that we can opt them out of testing, but does anyone know if this will have repurcussions in their later HS years (or upon graduation)? Are they penalized in any form for not taking them? For example, could the district come back & say “Your child is not eligible for ___ services since we base the need on PSSA scores & your child did not take the test.”? Thanks for your info & insight!

    • Our understanding is that there are no repercussions such as the ones you describe — however, down the road (unless we change this system), Keystones will become required for graduation. There are other places requiring PSSA scores, such as entrance to some private gifted programs, but usually these places accept multiple criteria. Kids that are home schooled or moving from a different state without these testing requirements would not have PSSA scores, so there must be some accommodation for “missing” scores. My hope is that we will change the stakes on these tests — and soon!

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