The Religious Reasons My Kids Won’t be Taking the Test

As we head into several weeks of high-stakes-testing here in Pennsylvania, I would like to share with you the religious reasons my children will not be taking the state mandated PSSAs. Here is an open letter I sent to Dr. Linda Lane, Superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools; Dr. Lisa Augustin, Director of Assessment; Ms. Jamie Kinzel-Nath, Pittsburgh Colfax K-8 principal; and all of our children’s wonderful teachers.

April 10, 2015

Dear Dr. Lane and Ms. Kinzel-Nath:

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 children, ____________, excused from PSSA testing on the grounds of my religious beliefs. Please allow ­­­­­­­­­___________ to pursue alternate educational activities such as a research project or volunteering in younger classrooms during testing.

I could stop my letter right there, as that is all that is legally required by the state in order to excuse our children from testing. However, as this is our third year writing such letters, I would like to explain the religious grounds we have for refusing to allow our children to be tested. Even though, under law, no state or school official is permitted to ask us about our faith nor require “proof” of our beliefs, I would like to share these religious reasons with you.

We belong to First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, a member of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), which is active in education justice. Every Sunday, we recite seven principles that unite Unitarian Universalists. Most of these principles are basic moral and philosophical statements shared by all of the world’s major religions. They reflect the common values of most faiths, from “love one another” and “do unto others,” to respect for the spark of the divine in each of us, and the ethical-humanist imperative to leave this world a better place. Please allow me to explain how each of these seven principles has led us to refuse high-stakes-testing for our own children, and on behalf of all children.

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Every child is valuable – priceless – and has the human right to a rich, full education. Respecting the inherent worth of every child also means treating each student as an individual, and not a widget being produced in a factory. Standardized testing, tied to an ever more standardized common core curriculum, sorts students into categories (“below basic,” “basic,” etc.) There are serious consequences to this sorting and labeling (see below), but the underlying premise of this standardized high-stakes-testing is to compare and rank students – not to support the individual learning of each student.

This is clearly evident when schools use standardized, normed tests, which force all students into a bell curve, guaranteeing that a large proportion of the children will fail. To get that nice bell shape of test results, with exactly half of the children falling on the “below average” side of the curve, the tests are carefully designed with purposefully misleading questions. For instance, test makers will use tricky sound-alike answers to intentionally trip up English language learners, or culturally specific clues most easily decoded only by students from wealthy families. Pittsburgh is subjecting students to the normed GRADE test not once, but three times a year (a result of accepting state money that came with testing strings attached). Teachers have been reporting the problematic GRADE test questions for years, but the test-maker has not changed them because this “assessment” requires a set failure rate. In what way does this kind of standardized testing respect the inherent worth of our students? When students’ test scores are then displayed for all to see on “data walls” (an increasingly common practice in our schools), how does this respect the dignity of each child?

  1. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

While advocates claim that high-stakes-testing will hold teachers and schools accountable for student learning and therefore promote equity, it often does the exact opposite by reinforcing inequality. High-stakes-testing labels our schools as “failures,” but never results in additional resources to actually help kids. Instead, “failing” schools are often targeted for closure. When you look at the pattern of school closures across the country – including here in Pittsburgh – you can see that districts have closed schools in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods, displacing some students multiple times. Our communities of color have been harmed the most, with places like Oakland and Hazelwood turned into education deserts without a single neighborhood public school.

Schools labeled as “failing” on the basis of student test scores are often targeted with other “reforms” that rarely help children. Our own beloved Colfax provides an excellent example of the “disruptive innovation” imposed on supposedly failing schools. Nine years ago when our family first started at Colfax, its large achievement gap had recently earned it a designation as a “turnaround school.” The district fired every single teacher and the principal then handpicked an entirely new teaching staff. The idea, of course, was that we had to get rid of the “bad” teachers and hire only “great” teachers and that would solve the problem of low test scores. Fast forward almost a decade and you can see that this didn’t work: Colfax still has one of the largest achievement gaps in the city (which is really an opportunity gap made highly visible by the presence of families from some of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest and poorest communities together in the same school).

During this same decade, Colfax students also experienced a relentless series of “reforms,” all aimed at increasing test scores. When we started, Colfax was a Spanish language immersion school, then we lost the extra language instruction to become an “Accelerated Learning Academy” focused on reading and math. We got an America’s Choice curriculum that was supposed to solve everything and added extra periods of reading. We got a longer school day and a longer school year. We got a Parent Engagement Specialist. Then we lost the curriculum, lost the extra time and days, and lost the parent specialist. The district changed to a 6 day week, so we could cram in extra reading and math periods, since these are tested subjects, resulting in a net loss of music, art, language, and physical education. With state budget cuts we lost more music and athletic programs, and we even lost our after school tutoring program aimed at those very students whose test scores continue to cause so much alarm. And class sizes ballooned to 30, sometimes 35 and more students.

Imposing constant churn and disruption on our most vulnerable students in the pursuit of higher test scores is not education justice. Worse, the relentless high-stakes-testing has served to re-inscribe inequality. We recently heard from Jon Parker, a Pittsburgh high school teacher, who explained what high-stakes-testing is doing to students’ sense of self worth in his classroom. Every year, he asks his students to write him a letter introducing themselves. In his class of struggling readers this year, over half of the students included their most recent PSSA rating as part of their introduction. They literally said things like, “I’ll work hard but I’m below basic.”

Mr. Parker explains, “the tragic message from our high stakes test environment is ‘you are your score.’ And if we tell a student he’s below basic regularly from the time he’s in kindergarten, what else would we expect of him? One of the stated goals of No Child Left Behind was to combat the ‘soft racism of low expectations.’ But instead it has created a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies. ‘You have failed in the past; you will fail forever.’ I cannot imagine where I would be if I had that school experience, but I can guarantee you I wouldn’t be here.”

Mr. Parker also examined the ways in which high-stakes-tests are used to exclude students from high-quality courses and programs. He gave the example of a young woman of color in his class right now with a 4.0 GPA – “one of the most well-rounded and motivated students I’ve ever had” – who will be excluded from taking the advanced math and science courses she would like to take next year solely because of a test score.

What’s more, Mr. Parker argued that if high-stakes-tests are meant to indicate which students need support so teachers can help them, they are miserably failing this most basic task. Instead, administrators and teachers makes lists of “bubble students” who are close to the passing mark and focus their energy on moving these students up to “proficient.” The students with the most needs, struggling at the very bottom, are passed over: “they are neglected, perpetuating what has probably been the whole of their educational experience. ‘You’re a failure; you’re not worth our time.’ Then we wonder why we have such disparity in opportunities, a lack of student or family buy-in, negative attention seeking behaviors (for which we then suspend students).”

So if our students who need the most help never get that help, where is the equity? If a young woman of color with 4.0 GPA wants to take advanced math and science classes but and can’t because of a single test score, where is the justice? If children now label themselves with their own test scores and literally believe themselves to be “below basic,” where is our compassion?

  1. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

Part of accepting one another is recognizing that we each have unique gifts and strengths. We are not all the same. Some students excel in trombone or slam poetry, or are highly empathetic or fantastic story tellers: none of which gets measured by high stakes testing. I am concerned about the intellectual growth of our students as well as the nurturing of their individual spirits. I believe in real learning and more learning time for our children. I support quality assessments that help our children learn and provide meaningful information to teachers to help them meet the needs of individual students. I want tests, ideally designed by teachers, which align with the curriculum and give timely, informative results to parents and students.

  1. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

As a scholar, I am committed to a free and responsible search for truth and I highly value data and evidence in that quest. We now have a mountain of evidence about the negative consequences of the high-stakes attached to testing, as well as the over-use and mis-use of testing. To summarize, these are some of the high-stakes for students:

  • Lost learning time: there’s less time for learning with testing and test prep (for instance, Pittsburgh students now take 20-25, or more, high-stakes tests a year). We have reports in the district this week of students covering up the walls to prepare for testing, rather than spending their time learning.
  • Reduced content knowledge: research shows that students are learning how to take high-stakes-tests, but cannot demonstrate subject mastery when tested in a different format. In other words, they are not actually learning. [Koretz, 2008]
  • Narrowed curriculum: with a focus on reading and math scores, students lose history, civics, world languages, the arts, and other programs.
  • Decreased ability to write: writing portions of high-stakes standardized tests are graded by hourly employees – not teachers – who are often recruited from Craig’s list and paid minimum wage. To “pass” these tests, students are taught a narrowly confined way to answer writing prompts.
  • Subjected to stale, dull methods: educators report that the focus on high-stakes-testing and test-prep means they cannot be creative and innovative in their teaching.
  • Missed teachers and classes: intense security measures prevent teachers from overseeing testing in their own classrooms, so teachers from non-testing classrooms (such as Kindergarten teachers) are frequently pulled from their students to proctor exams.
  • Used as guinea pigs: schools and districts routinely agree to allow their students to “field test” new questions and entire exams for testing corporations without notifying parents or compensating students. Teachers are expected to give a test they did not design, on material they did not teach, to students who will not learn anything from the experience. Those teachers, students, and their parents will never see the results. Last year when the district field-tested text dependent analysis, one principal told us students ripped up the tests and said they couldn’t do it. Field testing further reduces actual learning time and contributes to the stress imposed on our children.
  • Shut out of programs: high stakes exclude students when test results count as extra weight in magnet lotteries or for entrance to gifted programs or advanced courses.
  • Diverted resources: the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on testing in Pennsylvania are not available for classroom education. Most high-stakes tests are written by and benefit the bottom line of a handful of large international corporations. For instance, the new School Performance Profile system, largely based on student test scores, cost Pennsylvania taxpayers $2.7 million to develop and it will cost an estimated $838,000 every year to maintain. This does not include the five-year, $201.1 million contract with Data Recognition Corporation to administer high-stakes-tests to our students. Dr. Greg Taranto, Pennsylvania Middle School Teacher of the Year and member of Gov. Wolf’s education transition team, recently shared with us that state testing will cost us $58 million this year!
  • School closures: schools labeled as “failing” on the basis of test scores can be threatened with closure. These schools are usually in communities of color.
  • Loss of curiosity and love of learning: bubble tests are developmentally inappropriate for the youngest learners, yet are routinely being pushed down into Kindergarten in an attempt to get students “test ready.” The emphasis on “skill drill and kill” fails to stimulate children’s imagination and limits their natural curiosity. At Colfax, I’m concerned this has meant that our “enrichment” period has turned into an extra period of reading skills for most students.
  • Blocked access to facilities: as more and more tests are given on-line, many schools find their computer labs taken over by testing for weeks on end and not available for learning.
  • Harmful stress: children are pressured to not only demonstrate their knowledge but to represent the effectiveness of their teachers and their schools. Teachers are reporting children throwing up, losing control of their bowels, and increased commitments for psychiatric and anxiety issues. Mandated testing conditions, particularly for some special education students, border on child-abuse and some parents are reporting evidence of self-harming behaviors.
  • Internalized failure: struggling students forced to repeatedly take tests that label them “below basic” begin to believe they are “bad” or “worthless” students who cannot succeed in school.
  • Grades: some high-stakes tests are included in students’ grades.
  • Graduation requirements: as Pennsylvania introduces the Keystone graduation exams, evidence suggests that up to 60% of our students of color will be forced out of school without a diploma on the basis of a single score.
  • Altered school culture: schools must empty their walls and hallways for many weeks; classes are under lock-down with limited access to restrooms; some turn to daily announcements or even pep rallies to “prepare” students for testing and all-school field trips to “celebrate” testing (rather than actual learning).
  • Private data tracked: testing companies are tracking an enormous amount of information on our students, from test scores to even discipline data on children. Dr. Taranto told us, “this fact is not disclosed to parents” and he asks, “Who has access to this information? Who will have access to this student data down the road?”
  • Loss of enrichment: schools are eliminating academic field trips and pressuring teachers not to participate in activities that would take students out of school to maximize classroom time (for test prep). During PSSA testing, Pittsburgh’s gifted center also closes so those teachers can be reassigned to proctor the exams in other district schools.

With all of that evidence that high-stakes-testing is hurting students, changing their schools for the worse, and reducing real learning, why are we still giving so many standardized tests? Steve Singer, a teacher in the Steel Valley School District, points out that some tests can serve a political purpose. For instance, the DIBELS test, used to evaluate reading, is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and “cut scores are being artificially raised to make it look like more students are failing and thus our schools aren’t doing a good job.” Yet Mr. Singer explains that the DIBELS “doesn’t assess comprehension,” and “rewards someone who reads quickly but not someone who understands what she’s reading.” Also, he explains that, “focusing on pronunciation separate from comprehension narrows the curriculum and takes away time from proven strategies that actually would help [a student] become a better reader.”

My son’s experience with the DIBELS illustrates the way in which standardized tests can be used as gatekeepers, excluding even very high achieving students from accessing appropriate programs. My son was a “late” reader (which is not really true: he learned to read when he was developmentally ready in the third grade, and became a voracious, wonderful reader). But when he was in second grade, we were told his DIBELS score was too low to allow him to take an accelerated math class. He had taught himself multiplication at the age of four and was bored out of his mind in class. But the teacher had her orders: students needed to be reading 100 words per minute or could not advance to anything else. During our conversation with her about this, she called our son over and said, “I notice that you spend a lot of time looking out the window, like you were just now. Why are you daydreaming?” To which he answered, “Well, I was thinking about how if you have a ball in your hand, and drop it, and it hits the floor but doesn’t come all the way back up, where did that energy go?” I kid you not. He was seven years old and this was his response. The teacher looked right at us and said, “But see? He’s not reading 100 words per minute.”

Ideally, teachers are able to use test scores as just one data point among many to determine what students need to support their learning. But the hyper-focus on testing – and accountability measures that hold teachers responsible for getting every student over developmentally-arbitrary thresholds – means that time and again students are not treated as whole, complex learners, but rather reduced to a single score.

Testing advocates tell us that we must test every child, every year in order to identify inequality and drive reform (something no other high-education-achieving nation in the world does). But we have ample evidence from education researchers that high-stakes-testing is not improving schools. Over 2,000 education researchers recently sent an open letter to the Obama administration and Congress: citing reams of data, the researchers wrote, “we strongly urge departing from test-focused reforms that not only have been discredited for high-stakes decisions, but also have shown to widen, not close, gaps and inequities.” The letter went on to quote evidence at length from a new policy memo from the National Education Policy Center, which effectively summarizes a “broad research consensus that standardized tests are ineffective and even counterproductive when used to drive educational reform.”

Evidence also shows serious problems with using high-stakes-testing to evaluate and rate schools. For example, a detailed analysis of the state’s new School Performance Profile (SPP) rating system found that – despite its claim to use “multiple measures” to evaluate schools and teachers – 90% of the calculation is based on high-stakes standardized tests. Yet “these measures are closely associated with student poverty rates and other out- of-school factors.” In other words, the tests are very good at measuring one thing: a family’s socio-economic status. Even the much-touted Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System (PVAAS) component of the score, which is supposed to calculate projected student growth while controlling for out-of-school factors, instead strongly correlates with poverty. The report raises “questions about whether the measures are a valid and reliable measure for purposes of school accountability.” In essence, schools are being held accountable, not for what students learn, but for the poverty level of the families they serve.

Similarly, teachers are being evaluated on the basis of the test scores of their students. This is an invalid use of data, violating a basic principle of assessment, since those tests were never designed to measure teacher effectiveness. You can’t take a test created to measure one thing and use it to measure another. Nevertheless, the entire teacher evaluation system is built on just this assumption. In fact, the Value Added Model (VAM) used to evaluate teacher “effectiveness,” assumes that student test scores are the result of a specific teacher, independent of all other factors. Yet the American Statistical Association (ASA) released a report last spring strongly warning about the limitations of VAM models, explaining, “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores” and that “Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.” The statistical researchers concluded, “This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.”

My son’s situation reveals how inappropriate the entire VAM system can be. He is now several years ahead in math and takes his class at the high school each morning, before returning to Colfax for the rest of the day. However, the state would require him to take a PSSA several grade levels below where he is currently working. In what way would this assess his actual learning this year? This test is clearly not about helping my son in any way: it’s about evaluating his teacher. But if he scores at the very top of the PSSA, as he is bound to do, he is simply demonstrating the ceiling effect – there is no way to “show growth” for this student. Yet his teachers are accountable for the “growth” in each student’s test score. Furthermore, which teacher should we hold accountable for his score – the math teacher at Colfax who does not even have him in school this year? His math teacher at the high school who is not teaching him the material covered on the PSSA?

The American Education Research Association and the National Academy of Education released a report showing that VAM models are highly unstable: teachers rated highly effective one year, are frequently rated ineffective the next. Their ratings also differed substantially between classes taught in a single year. The report also confirmed that teachers’ VAM ratings were significantly affected by the demographics of the students they taught: even when VAM calculations tried to account for this, teachers’ scores were negatively impacted by working with poor students, English language learners, and students with special education needs. Finally, this report demonstrated that VAM ratings “cannot disentangle the many influences on students progress” and stated “most researchers have concluded that VAM is not appropriate as a primary measure for evaluating individual teachers.”

Yet as we place more and more emphasis on holding teachers, principals, and entire schools accountable for student test scores, we have seen a plague of adult cheating scandals erupt across the country. We should not be surprised, since Campbell’s Law in social science states that the more a quantitative measurement is used to make decisions, the more subject it becomes to corruption and the more likely it is to corrupt the thing it was supposed to measure. This is exactly what has happened, with the conviction of 11 former teachers in Atlanta this week who are now facing 5-20 years in prison for changing answers on student tests to raise scores. The superintendent of El Paso, Texas is currently in prison for taking low-performing students out of classes in order to increase the district’s test scores. In Ohio several cities apparently listed low-performing students as “withdrawn” to remove their scores from school totals. Some charter schools are well known for the “charter dump,” pushing students out just before testing season in order to inflate their test scores (sending students back into traditional public schools, where their new teachers will be held accountable for their learning). In Washington D.C. former superintendent Michelle Rhee – now the darling of the corporate reform movement who is famous for publicly firing a principal and massive school closures – oversaw her own “Erasure-gate” but was never held accountable. And right here in Pennsylvania our own former state Secretary of Education, Rom Tomalis, was caught both lying and cheating about student test scores (and then went on to occupy a ghost-job in the state capitol, making $140,000 a year but not showing up for work).

So why are we doing this? Why are we using our children’s test scores to feed a teacher evaluation system that not only doesn’t work, but actually harms teachers who work with our most vulnerable children? Finally, this Unitarian principle requires a commitment to a responsible search for truth, which means we have to be willing to examine the consequences of our own seeking. What if the collection and use of data on student achievement, as measured by test scores, is actually causing harm?

  1. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

I am exercising my right of conscience by refusing to allow my children to take these tests. Our family cannot and will not be complicit in a system that we see harming others and damaging our common good.

High-stakes testing has also interfered with the democratic process. In many cities that lack democratically elected school boards, mayoral appointees have used high-stakes testing to label schools as failures and then moved to close them in unprecedented waves. Chicago is still reeling from the mass closure of 50 schools in 2013, almost entirely in communities of color. In cities like Philadelphia and New York, state or mayoral control has resulted in the privatization of public schools, handing over large numbers to private charter operators. Where is the democratic process when parents and communities no longer have a voice in public education and what is best for their children? When hedge fund managers are pouring enormous amounts of money into local school board races across the country to stack the deck in favor of privatization? When private charter operators are some of the biggest political donors in the state and refuse to comply with Pennsylvania’s sunshine open-records laws?

  1. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Pennsylvania’s new Keystone exams pose a particular concern for education justice, as they threaten to fail enormous numbers of poor students and students of color, preventing them from graduating (one of the highest stakes of all for students). The Pennsylvania NAACP has demanded the removal of the Keystones as graduation requirements, calling the use of these tests a “present day form of Eugenics.” With pass rates last year at some impoverished schools in the single digits, how will this form of high-stakes-testing create justice for all? And where there is no justice, there is no peace.

In a letter to the PA Department of Education, the NAACP wrote, “Attaching the Keystone Examinations to graduation is clearly based on the idea that it is possible to distinguish between superior and inferior elements of society through selective scores on a paper and pencil test. … Pushing masses of students out of high school without a diploma will create a subculture of poverty comprised of potentially 60 percent of our young citizens.” The letter uses strong language to object to the impact of high-stakes-testing on our most vulnerable children, including: “human rights violation…unspeakable horror…holocaust on our youth and society…life-long trauma… a system of entrapment for the youth of Pennsylvania…depraved indifference…deficient in a moral sense of concern…lacks regard for the lives of the children who will be harmed, and puts their lives and futures at risk…lynching of our own young.”

If we are serious about the goal of education justice, how can we ignore the impact these tests will have on an entire generation of children denied diplomas, with life-long consequences? Where is their liberty and their freedom?

  1. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

To me, this principle evokes Martin Luther King’s famous quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are all connected – in an interdependent web of existence – and the oppression and harm caused to other people’s children, causes harm to all of us. We are all harmed by allowing oppression and oppressive systems to continue.

It doesn’t have to be this way. This entire system is only about 15 years in the making. Other countries that we admire greatly for their highly effective education systems do not test like this. If researchers need data to compare we could test sample groups of students, rather than every child. We could test every few years, instead of every year. We could remove the high-stakes for kids and teachers, and go back to using assessments to measure student learning, with the goal of helping students. We could admit that our most vulnerable students – our students living in poverty, our English language learners, our students with special education needs – don’t need more testing, but rather smaller class sizes; a rich, engaging, culturally relevant curriculum; and well supported teachers with adequate resources.

Respectfully submitted,

Jessie B. Ramey, Ph.D.

Your Cheat Sheet for the Test (In)

In case you missed the Test-In on Saturday, here’s your cheat sheet. We learned so much from the principals and teachers who spoke with us. And from the parents and students who shared their experiences with high-stakes-testing. Even the Post-Gazette attended. [Post-Gazette, 3-22-15] Be sure to study these class notes – there will be a test!

Over 50 people attended the Test-In on Saturday to discuss high-stakes-testing.

Over 50 people attended the Test-In on Saturday to discuss high-stakes-testing.

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The event started with over 50 people answering sample questions from the PSSAs and Keystone exams. Following standard testing protocols, all the student work and art on the walls had been covered in brown paper (which will remain up for the next four weeks); participants had to hand over their mobile phones and sit behind testing screens to prevent cheating; and several actual teachers (who have to pass a test on how to give these tests) walked around the dead-silent room answering questions with the only thing they are allowed to say, “I can’t answer that. Please read the question.”

Parents and students took sample test questions from the PSSA and Keystone exams.

Parents and students took sample test questions from the PSSA and Keystone exams.

Parents tackle the 3rd grade English Language Arts PSSA.

Parents tackle the 3rd grade English Language Arts PSSA.

Parents found the Algebra 1 Keystone way too difficult!

Parents found the Algebra 1 Keystone way too difficult!

When one test-taker got sick and “threw up” on her test (OK, this was only a dramatization, but it happens to kids), Yinzercation steering committee member Pam Harbin pulled on rubber gloves and explained that there is a protocol for this: the test must be collected, placed in a plastic bag, and then the answers transferred to another sheet so they can be scored, of course. Ick! Ms. Harbin kindly distributed the test answers at the end of the Test-In, but explained that in real life, students do not get their results back until the following year. In addition, teachers are never allowed to see the tests and neither teachers nor students ever learn what they actually got wrong so they can learn from their mistakes.

Yinzercation Steering Committee member Pam Harbin as the PA Department of Education explains testing procedures.

Yinzercation Steering Committee member Pam Harbin as the PA Department of Education explains testing procedures.

A "student" gets sick on her test, but it still must be collected and graded!

A “student” gets sick on her test, but it still must be collected and graded!

After all the test-taking, Dr. Greg Taranto, Pennsylvania’s 2012 Middle School Principal of the Year and a member of Gov. Wolf’s education transition team, explained four big concerns he has with the use of high-stakes tests. This is what he is seeing in our schools:

  1. Over testing. He said, “Too many tests are consuming mass amounts of instructional time.” The result is a narrowing of the curriculum, as schools add additional periods in tested subjects and cut back or eliminate non-tested areas such as the arts, social studies, and physical education.
  2. Over reliance. High stakes tests have become “the end all, be all for determining if a school is successful or not.” Dr. Taranto has serious concerns about the validity of these tests. For example, the testing company actually uses temp workers to grade the open-ended items on the tests. Another teach pointed out that testing companies advertise on Craig’s List and that graders need only have a bachelor’s degree (not a teaching degree or any teaching experience).
  3. Cost. There are huge costs to taxpayers as well as school districts. Dr. Taranto explained that the state is spending $58 million this year just to administer the tests (and that doesn’t include test development or other costs). What’s more, students lose the guidance counselor at his school for over a month because he is the staff member assigned to test administration.
  4. Student data tracking. Dr. Taranto also expressed concerns with the way that testing companies are tracking an enormous amount of information on our students, from test scores to even discipline data on children. He noted that, “This is not disclosed to parents” and asked, “Who has access to this information?  Who will have access to this information down the road?”
Dr. Greg Taranto explains the big concerns he has with high-stakes-testing.

Dr. Greg Taranto explains the big concerns he has with high-stakes-testing.

Dr. Taranto closed by saying, “My fear is we now have a generation of new parents and teachers coming about who think that this is what school is all about — narrowed curricula, test prep and taking all these standardized tests in the spring every year. The bottom line is: everything that is emphasized in schools now ties back to standardized testing.”

Pittsburgh teacher Jon Parker gives heart-wrenching examples of how high-stakes-tests are hurting his students.

Pittsburgh teacher Jon Parker gives heart-wrenching examples of how high-stakes-tests are hurting his students.

Parents then heard from Jon Parker, an English teacher at Pittsburgh Allderdice high school, who began by explaining the first assignment he gives each year. He asks his students to write him a letter introducing themselves. In his class of struggling readers this year, over half of the students included their most recent PSSA rating as part of their introduction. They literally said things like, “I’ll work hard but I’m below basic.” Mr. Parker fears that “students’ self-worth is becoming inextricably tied to scores on high stakes tests.” Listen to his powerful explanation:

“So the tragic message from our high stakes test environment is ‘you are your score.’ And if we tell a student he’s below basic regularly from the time he’s in kindergarten, what else would we expect of him? One of the stated goals of No Child Left Behind was to combat the “soft racism of low expectations.” But instead it has created a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies. “You have failed in the past; you will fail forever.” I cannot imagine where I would be if I had that school experience, but I can guarantee you I wouldn’t be here.

“Besides the destructive linking of test failure to personal failure, districts regularly use assessments like Keystones, PSSAs, SRIs, Dibels, and a litany of other acronymed atrocities to exclude students from high quality courses and programs. I have a student this year, one of the most well-rounded and motivated students I’ve ever had, who will be excluded from taking gifted math and science courses next year. Her current averages in both those subject areas are in the high 90s. Her GPA last semester was a 4.0. Teachers universally agree that work ethic is the most important predictor of success in challenging classes. And she would do the work. But instead, though she has the desire, the skill set, the support, she doesn’t have the score. This is bad policy in Pittsburgh, but I can assure you that instances like this happen every day across our state. So we have a young female student of color who wants to take challenging math and science courses. … And high stakes testing is literally the only barrier to her enrollment.

“Finally, I’d like to take a massive intellectual leap here and ask you to assume for a second that our tests have some validity in indicating of which students need support so that we can help them. That’s the reason most testing advocates cite. We need consistent data so we can support students who need it. But ultimately what happens in many schools is that administrators and teachers create lists of “bubble students.” These are students who are close to passing the Big Tests. And then teachers work with them individually to help them pass the test. Perfect, right?

“But what’s really happening is that the students with the most needs are passed over—they’re not close enough to pass the tests, so they are neglected, perpetuating what has probably been the whole of their educational experience. You’re a failure; you’re not worth our time. Then we wonder why we have such disparity in opportunities, a lack of student or family buy-in, negative attention seeking behaviors (for which we then suspend students).”

Mr. Parker concluded by saying, “high stakes testing has massive negative implications for real students and very few, if any positive outcomes. We must be the voice for our own kids, for our students, and for our schools. What I have described this morning is real life for them. And it is up to us to stand for them and for their future.”

Yinzercation steering committee member and Steel Valley teacher explains why high-stakes-tests do not provide valid information to teachers and why his daughter won't be taking them.

Yinzercation steering committee member and Steel Valley teacher explains why high-stakes-tests do not provide valid information to teachers and why his daughter won’t be taking them.

Last but not least, Mr. Steve Singer, a teacher from Steel Valley and Yinzercation steering committee member, took the floor and shared his recent experience opting his daughter out of testing. His blog piece entitled, “Not My Daughter – One Dad’s Journey to Protect His Little Girl from Toxic Testing,” has gone viral and been shared over 10,000 times in just the past few days. I highly encourage you to read the entire piece, but here’s an excerpt to get you started [Gadfly On The Wall, 3-20-15]:

I’ll admit it – I was scared.

I’m a nationally board certified teacher with a masters degree in education. I’ve taught public school for over a dozen years. But I’ve only been a daddy for half that time.

Would making this call get my little girl in trouble?

I didn’t want to rock the boat. I didn’t want my daughter to suffer because her old man is making a fuss. I didn’t want her teachers and principal giving her a hard time because of something I did.

But I couldn’t deny what I know.

Standardized testing is destroying public education. It’s stressing kids out by demanding they perform at levels they aren’t developmentally ready to reach. And its using these false measures of proficiency to “prove” how bad public schools are so they can be replaced by for-profit charters that will reduce the quality of kids’ educations to generate profits.

No. There was no doubt about it. I had to make this phone call.

I used my most professional voice on the line with the principal.

“Hi, Mr. Smith. This is Steven Singer. I’m Amy’s father. I know she’s just in kindergarten but it’s come to my attention she’s taking standardized tests, and I’d like to opt her out.”

Before my little girl started school, I hadn’t even realized there were standardized tests in kindergarten. She takes both the DIBELS and the GRADE test. … When taking the DIBELS, the teacher meets with a student one-on-one while the child reads aloud and is timed with a stopwatch. Some of the words the child is asked to read make sense. Some are just nonsense words. The test is graded by how many words the child pronounces correctly in a given time period.

“My concern is that the test doesn’t assess comprehension,” I said. “It rewards someone who reads quickly but not someone who understands what she’s reading.

“Moreover, there is a political side to the test since it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch. Cut scores are being artificially raised to make it look like more students are failing and thus our schools aren’t doing a good job.

“Finally, focusing on pronunciation separate from comprehension narrows the curriculum and takes away time from proven strategies that actually would help my daughter become a better reader.” …

Again, be sure to read Mr. Singer’s entire piece to get the full impact of his powerful message. But you get the point: our Test-In presenters all agree that there are major problems with high-stakes-testing. They are being over-used and mis-used. They are not valid measures of student learning. They are costing a fortune at a time when schools are struggling for basic resources. They label students and teachers as failures. They prevent students from accessing programs and opportunities and even prevent students from graduating. They encourage schools to focus on “bubble students” just below the mark, and ignore the most struggling students at the bottom.

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To this sad list, parents added dozens more examples of the impact of high-stakes-testing that they have seen on students and schools. In small group discussions, they recorded these consequences on sticky notes, which we will share in a future post. For now, your assignment is to listen to these educators: re-read this crib sheet and bone up for the test!

Sharpen Your Pencils

Get out your bubble sheet and sharpen your pencil. It’s your turn to take the test! Join us this Saturday to see what the PSSA and Keystone exams look like, take sample questions, talk to teachers, and discuss the impact of high-stakes-testing on students and our schools. It’s like an old-fashioned teach-in, only it’s a “Test-In.” Get it?

We’ll be learning from some great teachers and educators, including Dr. Greg Taranto. He was Pennsylvania’s 2012 Middle School Principal of the Year and is currently serving on Governor Wolf’s education transition team. Other speakers include Steel Valley teacher (and Yinzercation steering committee member), Steve Singer, and Pittsburgh Allderdice teacher, Jon Parker. Please RSVP on our Facebook event page, and then invite your networks.

The Test-In runs from 11:30AM – 1:30PM in the University Center at Carnegie Mellon. Free parking in the garage at Forbes & Beeler. Snacks provided! Co-sponsored by the Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh coalition and Carnegie Mellon’s Center for the Arts in Society.

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Come to the Test-In to learn why the Keystone exams pose a particular concern for civil rights, as they threaten to fail enormous numbers of poor students and students of color, preventing them from graduating. In Philadelphia last year, pass rates at some of the poorest schools were in the “single digits and low double-digits for all three subjects – Algebra I, Literature, and Biology. … Pass rates were low, even in some highly selective schools.” [The Notebook, 11-14-14]

The Pennsylvania NAACP has demanded the removal of the Keystones as graduation requirements, calling the use of these high-stakes-tests a “present day form of Eugenics.” In a letter to the PA Department of Education, they wrote, “Attaching the Keystone Examinations to graduation is clearly based on the idea that it is possible to distinguish between superior and inferior elements of society through selective scores on a paper and pencil test. … Pushing masses of students out of high school without a diploma will create a subculture of poverty comprised of potentially 60 percent of our young citizens.” [Pittsburgh Courier, 10-24-13] The letter uses strong language to object to the impact of high-stakes-testing on our most vulnerable children, including:

“human rights violation…unspeakable horror…holocaust on our youth and society…life-long trauma… a system of entrapment for the youth of Pennsylvania…depraved indifference…deficient in a moral sense of concern…lacks regard for the lives of the children who will be harmed, and puts their lives and futures at risk…LYNCHING OUR OWN YOUNG.” [NAACP letter to PDE, 9-3-13]

Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Tobash, a Republican from Dauphin County, is listening. He recently introduced a bill to repeal the Keystone graduation requirement and to stop the development of seven more subject-specific exams, required under current state law. Rep. Tobash explained, “The children of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, they need to learn, they need to be assessed, but when we’ve gone so far that we end up handcuffing our educational system with really an overwhelming amount of standardized assessment, we need to stop and put the brakes on here, take a look at it.” [Newsworks, 1-28-15]

State Sen. Andy Dinniman, a Democrat from Chester County, agrees. He has introduced similar legislation in the past, which has not gotten out of committee, but is doing it again this year. Citing severe budget issues for many impoverished school districts, Sen. Dinniman said, “the use of the Keystone Exams as graduate requirements must be stopped before they exacerbate an already dire situation.” He noted, “It’s clear to me that there are two systems of public education in Pennsylvania: separate and unequal … Until we resolve that discrepancy, how can we, in good conscience, stamp ‘failure’ on the backs of kids who lack the teachers, resources and classes to pass such standardized tests? To continue down this path without addressing such basic issues is beyond the pale. It’s downright shameful.” [Senator Dinniman, 1-16-15]

When students fail the Keystone exams twice in a row, they are required to do a “Project Based Assessment” (PBA). But these projects are equally troubling. The Superintendent of the Bethlehem Area school district explained last week that the PBAs are a “disaster waiting to happen.” He said, “We can’t figure it out yet how we’re going to make this work to the benefit of our students. … We’re really concerned. This is a major, major issue for high schools across the commonwealth.” [LehighValleyLive, 3-10-15] School officials have no way to administer the assessments without having students lose electives or other class time. And no one seems to know how teachers will be able to supervise the completion of all those projects. Where is that time coming from and how many other students will have their learning disrupted as a result?

Clearly we need to change state legislation and support the crucial efforts of Rep. Tobash and Sen. Dinniman. In addition, parents are using other strategies to combat high-stakes-testing, including refusing to allow their children to take the exams. At Feltonville middle school in Philadelphia this year, over 100 students will not be taking the PSSAs when they start in April. Many of those students are English Language Learners (ELL) who are not performing at grade level, yet Pennsylvania requires all ELL students – as well as special education students – to be evaluated at grade level on the high-stakes-tests. And when students do not score well on these tests, their school can be threatened with closure or turned over to a charter school operator. [The Notebook, 3-11-15]

We will talk more about these high-stakes impacts on kids and schools at the Test-In on Saturday. We will also generate strategies together to combat high-stakes-testing. Please come be a part of this critical community conversation. Get those pencils sharpened!

Talking about Testing

The movement against high-stakes-testing has mushroomed this year. Students, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, school boards, and even legislators across the country are talking about the overuse and misuse of testing. A glimpse of what they are saying in a moment, but first: here’s your chance to do some of the talking! Please hold these dates for two important events next week:

  1. Wednesday, March 18th, 6-8PM at Sci-Tech: The Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh community meeting will focus on school funding issues, including a session led by Yinzercation steering committee member, Kathy Newman, on the financial impact of high-stakes-testing. Come learn about these un-funded mandates, how they are hurting our schools, what they are costing state tax payers, and discuss what we can do about it. Dinner at 5:30pm and free childcare available.
  2. Saturday, March 21st, 11:30AM-1:30PM at Carnegie Mellon, University Center: Yinzercation is hosting a “Test In” for the community to come see the tests our kids are taking and answer sample questions. The event will feature Dr. Greg Taranto (a PA middle school principal of the year and member of Gov. Wolf’s education transition team!) speaking about the impact of high-stakes-testing on students. You might remember his op-ed piece that went viral last year. We will also hear from several teachers, including Yinzercation steering committee member Steve Singer. Keep your eyes peeled for more information.

Seriously, you don’t want to miss these opportunities to be a part of the conversation. Now, want to hear what some other folks are saying?

Start with three courageous principals from Canon-McMillan School District, right here outside of Pittsburgh, who recently published an article publicly explaining why evaluating teachers using high-stakes-testing is hurting students and schools. Critiquing the use of Value Added Measurement (VAM) statistical models, Dr. Greg Taranto, Mr. Kenneth Schrag, and Dr. Mark Abbondanza said, “school leaders must take action by ‘pulling the curtain’ back on VAMs to understand the detrimental impact they can have on their educational community. As school leaders, we cannot let the effectiveness of our teachers and the culture of our schools be determined by a ‘magical’ mathematical formula that does not calculate humanity in the equation!” Read the whole article for an excellent rundown on the research literature warning against the use of VAM for teacher evaluation. [PA Administrator, Feb. 2015]

A brand new report released yesterday supports their conclusion. A detailed analysis of the state’s new School Performance Profile (SPP) rating system found that – despite its claim to use “multiple measures” to evaluate schools and teachers – 90% of the calculation is based on high-stakes standardized tests. Yet, “standardized tests measure just part of the expectations we hold for students and schools.” Even more problematically, “these measures are closely associated with student poverty rates and other out- of-school factors—raising questions about whether the measures are a valid and reliable measure for purposes of school accountability.” [Research for Action, March 2015 report]

In other words, SPP scores measure student poverty. Period. Even the much-touted Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System (PVAAS) component of the score, which is supposed to calculate projected student growth while controlling for out-of-school factors, miserably fails to do so and instead strongly correlates with poverty. The report concludes, “our analyses suggest that Pennsylvania’s School Performance Profiles could be interpreted as a complex profile of student poverty.” That’s right: teachers and schools being held accountable, not for what students learn, but for the poverty level of the families they serve. And rather than send resources to support those families, these systems punish schools and teachers, threatening them with closure, firing, and more disruptive “reforms.”

Over 2,000 education researchers sent an open letter to the Obama administration and Congress last month saying the same thing. Citing reams of data, the researchers wrote, “we strongly urge departing from test-focused reforms that not only have been discredited for high-stakes decisions, but also have shown to widen, not close, gaps and inequities.” The letter went on to quote evidence at length from a new Policy Memo from the National Education Policy Center, which effectively summarizes a “broad research consensus that standardized tests are ineffective and even counterproductive when used to drive educational reform.” [NEPC, “Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Time to Move Beyond Test-Focused Policies,” Feb. 2015]

OK, so we have local principals, Pennsylvania policy analysts, and national education researchers all pointing to the evidence that high-stakes-testing is not working. What about those most affected: the students? They’re not being quiet either.

Last week, thousands of students in New Jersey refused to take the new high-stakes-tests in that state. In one district alone, a full 30% of the students refused to take the PARCC test, which is being used by several states to align with the new Common Core standards. [WABC-TV7, 3-2-15] One student who did take the test, wrote about the experience in a widely shared piece for the Washington Post: 10th grader Marina Ford explained how much class time she has lost to test-prep, how confusing and error-riddled the tests are, even for honors students like herself, and how these high-stakes-accountability-tests have prevented her from getting ready for the ones that really matter to her, such as the AP exams. [Washington Post, 3-7-15]

And it’s not just in New Jersey. Last year, over 60,000 students refused to take similar tests in New York, and the numbers are expected to be even larger this year when students in that state are scheduled to begin testing next month. [New York State Allies for Public Education] In New Mexico last week, thousands of students refused to take the tests and many hundreds protested by walking out of their high schools. [Daily Caller, 3-2-15] Similarly, last fall over 5,000 seniors in Colorado refused new state tests and hundreds participated in mass walk-outs. [Colorado Public Radio, 11-14-14] I could go on and on.

There are more teachers and principals speaking out and putting their jobs on the line, too. In a piece shared over 10,000 times on Facebook in the past few days, one teacher wrote an open letter to her students called, “I am Sorry for What I am About To Do To You.” Carol Burris, a highly regarded educator who was New York state’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year, is now calling on parents to refuse testing. A few weeks ago she wrote:

“It has become increasingly clear that Congress does not have the will to move away from annual high-stakes testing. The bizarre notion that subjecting 9-year-olds to hours of high-stakes tests is a “civil right,” is embedded in the thinking of both parties. Conservatives no longer believe in the local, democratic control of our schools. Progressives refuse to address the effects of poverty, segregation and the destruction of the middle class on student learning. The unimaginative strategy to improve achievement is to make standardized tests longer and harder. …

“The only remedy left to parents is to refuse to have their children take the tests. Testing is the rock on which the policies that are destroying our local public schools are built. If our politicians do not have the courage to reverse high-stakes testing, then those who care must step in.

“I am a rule follower by nature. … But there comes a time when rules must be broken — when adults, after exhausting all remedies, must be willing to break ranks and not comply. That time is now. The promise of a public school system, however imperfectly realized, is at risk of being destroyed. The future of our children is hanging from testing’s high stakes. The time to Opt Out is now.” [Washington Post, 2-19-15]

While test refusal is one of several strategies to combat high-stakes-testing – and we will be talking about those at our events next week – it is clearly growing across the country, and with good reason. I leave you here with the words of New Jersey parents who made this powerful video, and look forward to continuing the conversation on March 18th and March 21st.

The Words We Have Waited For

We have waited four long years to hear these words. There’s no better way to start this morning than to quote Gov. Wolf himself, who put public education at the very top of his budget speech yesterday:

Let’s start with schools.
Our commitment to education is historic.
We are starting with education because, in many ways, education is at the core of everything else that we want to achieve. …
A great public education system will help Pennsylvania attract new businesses, retain talent, and grow the middle class. …
Over the past four years, Pennsylvania took a step in the wrong direction by trying to balance our state budget on the backs of our schools.
It left us with 25,000 educators out of work.
It forced 75 percent of school districts to cut academic programs.
It forced 70 percent of our school districts to increase class sizes.
It left 56 percent of Pennsylvania students with no access to a full-time librarian.
And it forced too many schools to cut art and band to pay for reading and math.
My fellow Pennsylvanians: this is not a formula for success.
We can do a lot better.
It’s just this simple: our state is never going to get stronger as long as we make our schools weaker.
And that is why the very first thing my budget does is restore the $1 billion in cuts to public education that occurred under the previous administration. [Gov. Wolf’s 2015-16 Budget Speech]

I think I hear angels singing. Or maybe that’s choirs of public school children excited to get their music programs back. With that sweet soundtrack in mind, here are the education highlights from the governor’s proposed budget (summaries from EducationVoters PA and the Education Leadership and Policy Center):

  • INCREASE of $400 million for Basic Education Subsidy, the largest in Pennsylvania history according to EdVoters (up 6.98%). This combined line item includes what was for 2014-15 separate line items for Basic Subsidy, Accountability Block Grant, and Ready to Learn Block Grant.
  • INCREASE of $100 million for Special Education (up 9.55%).
  • INCREASE of $120 million for Early Education – Pre-K Counts and Supplemental Head Start (up 87.93%). This will increase the number of children in Pre-K Counts and state-funded Head Start Supplemental Assistance programs by 75% or more than 14,000 children!
  • INCREASE of $23 million for Career and Technical Education (up 37.10%).
  • INCREASE of $4.6 million for Adult and Family Literacy (up 38.10%).
  • INCREASE of $15 million for Community Colleges (up 6.98%).
  • INCREASE of $45.302 million to the State System of Higher Education (up 10.98% increase).
  • INCREASE of $82.138 million to State-Related Universities (up 15.76%). Locally, this would include restoring $14.9 million to the University of Pittsburgh.
  • INCREASE of $2 million for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (PCA) grants to arts organizations (up 23.3%).
  • $9 million for Dual Enrollment requested from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA)
  • An estimated $160 million in savings to school districts from Cyber Charter Reform, including a proposed 10% in charter reimbursement and a flat rate for cyber-charter schools.
  • Governor Wolf also called for a new education funding formula by June 30th (to start in the 2016-17 school year).

What do all these numbers mean for local school districts? Pittsburgh would see an increase of 8.06% with this budget, restoring $14.9 million in combined Basic Education Funding and Special Education Funding to our schools. (See PA Dept of Ed spreadsheet for all school districts.)

As I told the Post-Gazette, this is what parents have been waiting for. This budget puts us on track to get us back to where we were before the education cuts four years ago. [Post-Gazette, 3-4-15] It’s not the end-all, be-all … but it sure is sweet music to our ears. Gov. Wolf even made public education the headline of his widely shared budget info-graphic (below). Now the legislature needs to get to work with our new governor and make it happen!

Wolf'sBudgetInfoGraphic

More on School Push-Out

Over 80 people crowded into the Kingsley Center on Saturday morning to talk about school push-out! Organized by Pam Harbin (a Yinzercation steering committee member) and hosted by Great Public Schools Pittsburgh, the Education Law Center, and the Center for Third World Organizing, the event also featured state Rep. Ed Gainey and University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work professors Jeff Shook and Sara Goodkind (another steering committee member).

WESA-FM covered the event, quoting Dr. Shook explaining research that demonstrates the danger of placing disciplinary labels on young children: “This study finds that there’s an internalization of this label that’s related to subsequent behavior, but more importantly it also finds that authority figures, school figures and other authority figures, they’re more apt to apply that label once it’s initially applied.” He also indicated that suspension does not necessarily correct student behavior, while sending young people into the juvenile court system leads to significant negative outcomes.

Nancy Potter, a lawyer with the Education Law Center, told the group that research confirms, “high levels of suspension and zero tolerance policies not only hurt the student disciplined but hurts all students who feel they aren’t in a safe and nurturing environment.” She led one of the breakout sessions that discussed recommended changes to Pittsburgh’s student code of conduct. [WESA, 3-1-15]

Want to help keep the work going? Join us this Wednesday at the Carnegie Library in East Liberty at 4:30PM to make the recommendations from the meeting into a reality. The school push-out committee will be a working group focused on making and promoting the solutions to end school push-out in our schools! Light snacks will be provided. More information and RSVP here.
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Gov. Wolf Listens to Pittsburgh Students

Oh those kids! Remember the amazing Pittsburgh CAPA students who testified at the school board hearing in December about arts education? [“All They Want for Christmas … Is Art Education”] Not only did the Washington Post pick up their story, but now Governor Wolf is listening to them, too.

Here’s a report from Yinzercation steering committee member, Kathy Newman, who helped to organize the student testimony: On Thursday, February 26th five sleepy but excited CAPA students waited in the chilly dawn to get on the Education Justice bus to Harrisburg. United with a group of activists from One Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, the PA Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), Action United, Yinzercation, SEIU and 32BJ, they were ready to bring a message about education funding and sustainable community schools to the state capital.

This CAPA group got its start when Margaret (Meggie) Booth, president of her National Arts Honor Society, and fellow CAPA student William Grim, decided that one of their projects this year would be using art to advocate for more state funding. They made over 100 watercolor postcards, and asked their classmates to write on the other side of the postcard about why the arts are important. For the action on Thursday the CAPA students fashioned these postcards into a festive mobile banner, and presented it to our new Governor, who seemed thrilled with their efforts – and tweeted it out under his own name!

Gov.Wolf Gives Pgh Students Thumbs Up!

On the bus back to Pittsburgh Margaret and Will reflected on their day in Harrisburg.

Meggie Booth – Advocate & Speaker:

As soon as we entered the rotunda of the capitol building, I was amazed by the breathtaking ornate beauty. An elegant marble staircase sat in the middle with gold, silver and glass twisting through every inch of the room. Fluid murals ascended towards the ceiling, directing our eyes upwards. And then, there was the most beautiful sight of them all. The beauty of ordinary faces glistened. The faces of workers, parents, students, constituents. Our voices blended together to form a harmony that demanded an effort to build healthier communities. Our beauty decorated the capital, emulating the words “Wise And Just,” scripted on the ceiling.

Fellow CAPA students and I were there to represent the arts. We wanted to emphasize the importance of arts when talking about a quality education. I was fortunate to be given an opportunity to speak during the rally. This opportunity was both frightening and empowering. The crowd was full of optimism as energy spilled from their smiles. People shouted and shook their heads in agreement. We chanted “Enough is enough,” “When we fight, we win,” and “If we don’t get it, shut it down.”

For me, the most powerful thing about this rally was how it truly encapsulated the power of the people, not just experienced lobbyists and organizers. This rally spoke to the fact that problems in the world cannot be addressed without conversations and collaboration with those most directly affected. Today, it was the people who raised their voices. Today, the people were heard.

[Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

[Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

[Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

[Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

Pittsburgh CAPA students, left to right: William Grimm, Andrew Lowery, Sarah Hudson, Meggie Booth, and Maya Bingham. [Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

Pittsburgh CAPA students, left to right: William Grimm, Andrew Lowery, Sarah Hudson, Meggie Booth, and Maya Bingham. [Photo credit: Sarah Hudson]

Will Grimm – Advocate & Constituent:

The people were heard by representatives, politicians, and perhaps most importantly, Governor Tom Wolf himself. Meggie and I, along with other CAPA students, had each member of the student body state the importance of the arts in schools on a postcard. These cards were first presented to the Pittsburgh Public School Board in early December and then again today in Harrisburg.

The cards, each of which has a hand painted design, were strung in groups of ten and attached to two poles. This was an airy yet influential visual that shared student voices. We had originally planned to display this with the other visuals at the rally but arrived to the news that it would be gifted directly to the Governor.

The CAPA group, along with organizers from OnePittsburgh, headed to the official chambers anticipating the Governor. We were instead greeted with his advisors who assured us that it would go to the right place. To our surprise, it did. A few hours later, Tom Wolf shared an image of himself with our project, thanking us for sharing our voices. Our group hooted and hollered—we had been heard.

Having political leaders that listen to their people is the first step in creating change. When everyone—the students, teachers, workers, organizers, parents—stood together, it was evident we are following this path. Citizens are rising and this generation is acting for the benefit of the next. Being in a room packed with fellow activists was an honestly moving experience. We united as one and as a result, the students of CAPA were heard. Our opinions were shared, our work was validated, and our vision unmasked.

————

Thank you, Will, Andrew, Sarah, Meggie, and Maya! Finally, I leave you with more pictures from Yinzercation steering committee member Pam Harbin, who went to Harrisburg with the students, to fight for fair and adequate education funding for all our schools. Thank you, Pam!

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Look at that Great Public Schools Pittsburgh banner!

Look at that Great Public Schools Pittsburgh banner!

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