Today is “Absolutely Incredible Kids Day.” This is a national effort by Camp Fire USA asking adults to write letters of love and support for the children in their lives. Two local parents decided to participate by writing an opt-out letter for their third grader at Pittsburgh Linden. It’s a passionate plea that beautifully explains why parents are choosing to opt their children out of high-stakes-testing, participating in a growing national movement focused on actual student learning and equity in public education for all our kids.
In addition to those at Pittsburgh Linden, families across the city will be opting out – from Pittsburgh Colfax, Greenfield, Liberty, Montessori, Phillips, and others – joining suburban districts ranging from Mt. Lebanon to Franklin Regional. [For more on the Opt Out movement here, see “Time’s Up”] This is a big deal for Southwest Pennsylvania where we are not known for civil disobedience or radical actions. But the large number of participating families and the speed at which they have taken to the Opt Out movement speak to the urgency of the message: the high-stakes attached to high-stakes-testing are damaging our children, our teachers, our schools, and our system of public education.
March 21, 2013
Dr. Linda Lane, Superintendent, Pittsburgh Public Schools
341 S. Bellefield Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15213
cc: Principal Victoria Burgess
Dear Dr. Lane,
Pittsburgh Public Schools provided a post on its Facebook wall encouraging parents to write letters of love and support for Absolutely Incredible Kids Day. On this day, Absolutely Incredible Kids Day, our letter expressing our love and support for our daughter is this one.
Pursuant to Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4 (d)(5) we are hereby exercising our rights as parents to have our child excused from any State standardized testing because of philosophical beliefs. Our decision has come after significant research, reflection, and soul-searching discussion between the two of us and with informed educators and education theorists in our community.
During the time when other students are taking State standardized PSSA tests (including make-ups), we would like our child, ___, to be provided with real learning opportunities at her school during test time. Or, if you would prefer, we could keep __ at home.
Although we are not required by law to provide explanations for our decision to opt out, we would like to highlight in the following paragraphs both personal and social reasons by which we take issue with PSSA testing. We should note before we highlight our major concerns, that we understand that standardized testing is an unfortunate mandate of the supremely misguided “No Child Left Behind” legislation that seems to lack relevant objectives or vision. We understand that Linden Elementary students, its principal, and the teachers at our school are casualties of this misinformed legislation.
1. The PSSA has high-stakes for students and schools. Pittsburgh Public Schools has made and will continue to make decisions to close schools based on the results of this test. Therefore, the stakes are the highest for schools that already suffer from the inequality across neighborhood schools; high teacher and principal turnover, concentrations of students living in poverty, inadequate resources and institutionalized racism. We believe that these tests and the demanding methods by which they oppress students, teachers, and administration, further widen an already troubling racial achievement gap. The students who struggle most; those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and from identified marginalized groups suffer most.
2. High-stakes tests may not accurately measure learning and achievement, and hence, are not an accurate assessment of student learning. Certain subgroups disproportionately score lower on these tests. Is it possible that the PSSA has a racial, economic and ability bias built in that is beneficial to certain subgroups of students? As a family with a trained professional who administers these tests in a clinical psychology practice, we are aware of commonly accepted failures of ability testing, which are fraught with racial and class bias.
Parents are told that this is the EASIEST way to measure learning, not the BEST way. We understand the value of assessment; however, PSSA scores are not even returned to teachers until the following school year! How does that help with the assessment of current learning environments?!
3. The PSSA has high-stakes for teachers, and soon, principals. Test-based teacher and principal evaluation systems are gaining popularity as evidenced by current state legislation. (Act 82 of 2012) Unfortunately, there is no research available to prove that these evaluation systems work to improve student learning. There is evidence though that the reliance on high-stakes testing, for the purpose of evaluating teachers, has caused a narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the test and an increase in cheating. Additionally, testing companies have admitted that these tests were not developed for the purpose of evaluation and should not be used in that way. The preparation tests were also haphazardly thrown together. Please go to a classroom and look at item options. They are redundant.
We have come to understand that teacher performance evaluations are being based on success rates on PSSAs. This state of affairs presents undue pressure on teachers to meet certain mandates if they are to feel any sense of job security. We have seen and observed this pressure on teachers within our own school building who act out of character with increasing regularity in the immediate weeks preceding testing. Families have left and/or are considering leaving our school due to the behavior being reported on the part of teachers due to testing demands. Our teachers are cracking under the pressure!
As a consequence of 3. above…
4. High-stakes tests cause student fear, anxiety and loss of confidence. In our home, we place a value on the love of learning. We believe that learning should be individualized, well rounded, and enjoyable. We encourage our kids to learn from making mistakes. You can understand why we would be upset when our daughter in 3rd grade adamantly refused to answer a homework question (with 2 possible answers) because she was afraid she would get the wrong answer and get belittled in class. We want our daughter’s strengths to be fostered and less developed skills to be nurtured. We want her to love education and to learn in a manner that suits her individually. We want this for all children. Classrooms ought to provide environments that cater to each child’s individual interests and goals.
Recently, a student at Pittsburgh Obama wrote in the school newspaper about high-stakes testing, “These standardized tests have become increasingly stressful for the teachers and students. There is too much at stake on one test that you take once a year. It has gotten to the point where the tests are a disruption to learning”. Our children are cracking under the pressure.
4. High-stakes tests cause a narrowing of the curriculum and undermine the quality of instruction. Classes and subjects that are not tested have been increasingly eliminated in PPS. Programming has been slashed wholesale, and many enrichment and extracurricular activities are no more in many schools. Linden still has a full time art and part-time music teacher. Some schools do not, because they have even more ELA and Math. Schools that perform poorly on the PSSA have art and music instruction once every six days and schools that perform better on the PSSA have full-time art and music instruction. We hasten to consider Linden as lucky in that arts programming is also essential programming.
Children identified as ‘low performers’ on the high-stakes PSSA are given more frequent assessments and are subjected to drill and kill methods of instruction. Simply for the purpose of enabling them to achieve higher standardized test scores. This is not quality instruction nor is it learning.
We have grown more concerned about the seeming lack of intellectual creativity among our children attending PPS schools due to the singular focus on PSSAs. Each year they lose more science, social studies, art, music, and other enrichment courses. For crying out loud, science and art are considered “special” classes from our children’s perspectives! A teacher at our school only two weeks ago was observed scolding a child in class after failing to respond correctly to a PSSA prep question. He/She stated, “You Greenway kids (referring to gifted programming) think too much. I would end that program altogether.” This is evidence of an impassioned instructor? This is evidence of an enriching, nurturing learning environment?
An educator and elementary principal of 32 years, now retiring because he can no longer “teach” stated the following about high stakes testing: “I shiver when I see and hear students asking their teachers, ‘Is this the way you want it?’ or, ‘Did I do this the right way?’ We are systematically testing our kids at multiple times every year to a point where they think that the only measurement of success is a state assessment result! Often students cannot think critically or are afraid to be creative and produce something independently. Will you really be satisfied that your child is doing well in school because a test indicates such? Or will you expect more? Testing at the elementary level is replacing a love for learning that we want to instill in every child.”
5. High-stakes tests cause poor school climates. The use of high-stakes testing has turned our schools into test prep centers. This increases barriers to real learning and student engagement. The fear that some students or subgroups will bring down test scores contributes to a hostile and stressful school climate. This creates animosity and alienation between racial and economic groups. Students with disabilities are often vilified because they disproportionately score lower on high-stakes tests.
Since the beginning of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the focus on results of high-stakes tests, suspensions rates and expulsions have increased and graduation rates have decreased. Colleges and Universities have reported that students are less prepared for the challenges of higher education (academic and non-academic).
6. The overuse and misuse of high-stakes testing has the unintended consequence of INCREASING INEQUALITY and violating all childrens’ civil rights to a free and appropriate education. Inequity in Pittsburgh Public Schools has increased in the following ways:
- increase in student suspensions (students being pushed-out of learning)
- high turn-over of teachers and principals in low performing schools (as measured by the test results)
- punitively closing schools in communities of color and low income
- teaching to the test for specific students
- elimination of rich curriculum for specific students
- because enrichment programming has been eliminated, families are forced to find programming independent of schools. Many of the programs are costly and further widen the enrichment gap between classes and cultures.
Whether the above consequences are intended or unintended, our children, our communities, our teachers, and our principals suffer. Consequently, Dr. Lane, we cannot and will not allow our daughter to participate in a process that causes her undue stress, limits the breadth and enjoyment of her learning environment, and provides little payoff to her educationally. Additionally, we cannot and will not participate in a system that further subjugates and marginalizes classes and cultures who are already struggling, oppresses and limits the training and talents of our beloved teachers, and utilizes children as data points in a terribly misguided and misinformed federal learning philosophy. We are among the top 1% of developed countries and are 17th in education, and perhaps toward the bottom of the pile in social, class, and gender relations.
Our goal, our cause as parents and citizens, is to battle the powers-that-be for educational equality that is the result of carefully constructed and diverse learning environments. We are aware of the potential consequences for you, our teachers, and our schools, but our civil disobedience is aimed to fight for our children, our educators, and our educational system. This is our generation’s task and fight we will. So on this Absolutely Incredible Kids Day, we are making you aware that we will not subject our daughter to the stress and insidious undertones to this high stakes test. We love and appreciate her too much.