Op-ed, Opt Out, Occupy

The O’s had it this past week. First, Kathy Newman’s terrific op-ed piece on why she is not letting her son take the PSSAs went completely viral. Over 41,000 people shared the story on Facebook from the Post-Gazette’s site – and we know it spread much, much farther from there. Even more importantly, it generated a nationwide discussion of the consequences of high-stakes-testing with hundreds of people posting comments (the vast majority of which were extremely supportive).

The public response created its own wave of media attention as the story of our Opt Out action continued to race around the country. We wound up having a public dialogue with Gov. Corbett’s administration in the letters-to-the-editor section of the paper, as well as radio interviews and print articles ranging from the Washington Post to the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a run down of the media timeline:

In the middle of all this media fun, a number of people from Yinzer Nation travelled to Washington D.C. for the Occupy the D.O.E. event, April 4-7. These included Ann Aldisert Becker and Marjie Crist of Mt. Lebanon, which was just ranked the #2 school district in the entire state, and has a particularly active group of families opting out of high-stakes-testing. [Pittsburgh Business Times, 4-5-13] Parents there are seeing the same effects of these tests as families in urban areas, with the narrowing of the curriculum and the loss of arts programs and even recess.

I spoke on Friday afternoon to an enthusiastic crowd gathered on the sidewalk about Pennsylvania budget cuts and the privatization of our schools – including school closure, vouchers, and tax credit programs – all legitimized by high-stakes-testing. I connected our fight for public education to the fight for our other public goods (such as transportation, infrastructure, and parks) to think about the way in which too many people have lost faith in the very idea of a common good. That loss of faith has allowed the rise of corporate-style reforms, backed by big money, and often the insertion of a far-right political agenda into state policy making.

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Chicago Teachers Union president, Karen Lewis, spoke about the myths used to promote school closure – such as calling schools targeted for elimination “half empty” when they are not. And she insisted we stop calling them “failed schools” but rather “abandoned schools.” Early childhood education researcher Nancy Carlsson-Paige talked about the developmentally inappropriate use of high-stakes-testing on ever-younger kids, including practices that she characterized as child-abuse now being foisted on three and four year olds.

The students who led a walk-out of high-stakes-testing in Denver, Colorado also spoke and then managed to get an audience with a Department of Education youth outreach director. On Saturday, the education occupiers marched all the way to the White House. And this was no rag-tag group: the Occupy program included an astonishing list of education scholars including Diane Ravitch, Mark Naison, Stephen Krashen, Sherrick Hughes, Deborah Meier and many others. There is no doubt that ours is an evidence-based movement.

From one Op-ed that generated a national buzz, to dozens of local parents choosing the civil disobedience of Opting-Out, to Occupying the DOE in D.C. … our grassroots movement is fighting to put the public back in public education. It was a week of O’s, and here’s another: Outstanding work, everyone.

Opt Out Goes Viral

We’ve gone viral again! And the Governor is listening. On Sunday, the Post-Gazette published Kathy Newman’s terrific Op Ed about why she is opting her son out of high-stakes-testing. [See “A Plague of Cheating”] In the past 48 hours, over 23,000 people have shared that story on Facebook from the paper’s website and it has generated an incredible nationwide discussion with over 300 public comments. Yes, over twenty-three thousand people have not only read about our grassroots movement but have shared the story (we know the actual number of readers is much, much higher and still climbing fast as I type).

So it comes as no surprise that Governor Corbett’s office is paying attention. The press secretary for the PA Department of Education, Tim Eller, has a letter-to-the-editor in today’s paper responding to the Op Ed. It is full of incomplete statements and rhetorical red herrings, and demonstrates the way in which this administration continues to purposefully mislead the public. So let’s take a closer look, shall we? [All references to Post-Gazette, 4-2-13]

First, let’s point out that Mr. Eller uses “Ms. Newman” throughout his letter, refusing to acknowledge her academic credentials as Dr. Newman or Professor Newman. These are subtleties that matter, because Mr. Eller and this administration are corporate-style reform adherents who continually discount the experiences and expertise of professional educators. Instead, they promote the idea that our schools ought to be run by those with business credentials and no education experience whatsoever. This is one of the key principles of the privatization movement, which wantonly and inappropriately applies corporate doctrine to public education (for example, placing the bottom-line above all other considerations, seeking efficiencies by closing “failing” subdivisions of the system, outsourcing, demonizing collective bargaining, and more).

The first thing Mr. Eller does in his letter is to revert to the tired old line we heard over and over again last year during the state budget debate, claiming that “Gov. Tom Corbett didn’t cut $1 billion from education. Since taking office, the governor has increased state support of public schools by $1.25 billion.” If that’s not enough to make you laugh out loud, I don’t know what will. Budget cuts were hardly the focus of the Op Ed piece, so it certainly tells us how sensitive this administration remains on the issue. Mr. Eller and his bosses can repeat this line until the cows come home, but it does not make it true.

As we have reported extensively, when Gov. Corbett took office, he slashed nearly $1 billion from our schools – and then locked those cuts in again last year, so now our children are missing nearly $2 billion. As you may recall, what the Governor did in 2011 was collapse several line items in the budget into one, under “Basic Education,” so he could claim that he had increased education funding, when overall he has drastically decreased funding to our schools. Our kids know this: they are the ones sitting in larger classrooms, missing nearly 20,000 of their teachers who have been lost these past two years, and without art, music, science, gym, full day Kindergarten, transportation, field trips, books, supplies, and even tutoring. These cuts are real and cruel.

In a rare moment of full disclosure last year, even Gov. Corbett admitted the truth saying, “We reduced education funding if you look at it as a whole. … and if you listen to my words, I always talk about the basic education funding formula [also referred to as the basic education subsidy].” [Capitolwire, 2-9-2012 (subscription service); for reference, see PADems 2-10-12]. (For a complete analysis of the budget, based on the state’s own published numbers, please see “The Truth About the Numbers.”) To claim that Gov. Corbett has increased state funding for our schools is patently absurd and intentionally misleading the public. But this letter is full of misleading statements.

Mr. Eller next asks rhetorically why those opting out don’t want “students to graduate with the skills and knowledge to be successful in life.” That is exactly the point. High-stakes-testing is damaging our children’s education. Their curriculum has been drastically narrowed, real learning time has been slashed as teachers are forced to “teach to the test,” and the tests themselves take up weeks and weeks of class time. Families are opting out precisely because they care about what their kids are learning (and not learning due to these tests).

Mr. Eller implies that there must be nothing wrong with high-stakes-tests because they “have been in place for more than a decade” and then slyly suggests that the opt out movement has become active only “now that they will be used, in part, to evaluate educators.” Of course, educators have been talking for ten years now about the problems with No Child Left Behind and its testing mandates. And as the effects of high-stakes-testing have gotten worse and worse, families have also started fighting back. The misuse of student testing to evaluate teachers (they were not designed to measure teaching effectiveness and therefore are invalid for this purpose) is only the latest straw, just adding more high-stakes.

In just the past few years, we have seen dramatic changes in our schools due to the double whammy of high-stakes-testing and budget cuts. The tests have been used to label public education a “failure,” and to justify mass closings of schools across the country for the first time in history – and then in many instances, the handover of displaced students to privately run charter schools. Meanwhile, as schools such as the one my children attend scramble to raise test scores, we have seen everything from the elimination of rest-time for Kindergartners to a huge expansion in the number of tests and the testing period. By one count, my sixth grader will take 23 standardized tests (most with high-stakes attached) this year, up nine from last year. All this while he is sitting in a math class with 39 students in it.

Yet Mr. Eller has the nerve to say that his own kids complain about taking quizzes and asks then, “Should we abolish all forms of assessment?” Of course not. Families who are opting their children out of high-stakes-testing believe in quality assessment. We want to know how our children are performing in school. But PSSAs are not designed to give any meaningful feedback about learning to either students or their teachers. In fact, the test results are not even available until the following school year, long after a teacher might be able to use the information to help a child. We don’t need high-stakes-testing to tell us how our kids are doing when we have multiple measures already in place: homework, end of unit exams, report cards, meetings with teachers.

Next Mr. Eller tries to mansplain to Dr. Newman how the state has “applied for a waiver to provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Once approved, adequate yearly progress will no longer be measured … under the waiver application, it would not be used for this year’s assessments.” As we have reported, waivers are no favors. When the federal government grants a waiver, it frequently imposes mandates that spell bad news for public schools.

For instance, in New Jersey, the waiver requirements imposed on that state have created yet a new labeling and blame system: the Garden State will now make a list of 75 “priority” and 183 “focus” schools that will receive mandated interventions, including possible closure or conversion to charter schools. Forty-five parent groups and civil rights groups have petitioned U.S. Secretary Duncan to stop the process, which will affect the poorest schools with the highest percentage of African American and Latino students. The coalition noted that the state has also classified 122 “reward” schools, which will receive financial bonuses, and are located in the wealthiest districts in the state. They concluded, “The blatant economic and racial inequity built into this classification system harks back to the days when such segregation and inequity were policy objectives for our State.” [Save Our Schools NJ, 10-15-12] (See “Waiver no Favor” for complete details.)

Finally, Mr. Eller says that, “Public schools must be held accountable to students, parents and taxpayers.” That word “accountability” is corporate-reform speak for labeling schools, teachers, and kids as failures. If we were serious about accountability, we would be sending additional resources to struggling schools, not threatening to close them down. We would make sure that we had a modern funding formula that equitably distributes our tax dollars to school districts. Now that would be accountability. Yet Gov. Corbett eliminated our modern formula when he took office, making us one of only three states in the entire nation without one. [See “Back to the Budget”]

And press secretary Eller closes with the most specious argument of all. He posits that we must have high-stakes-testing to “ensure that the $27 billion — local, state and federal taxes — Pennsylvania taxpayers put into K-12 public education is being used to educate our kids.” Really? We have to have damaging high-stakes-testing to make sure kids are learning? You know what the research actually shows? Under NCLB and high-stakes-tests, kids are learning less. Less. They know how to take tests, but they can’t reproduce the results on different forms of assessment because they actually are not learning content. [Koretz, Measuring up: What educational testing really tells us. Harvard University Press, 2008] We are spending untold billions in this country on test development and testing – all benefitting private test company bottom lines – and our kids are not learning more at all.

And Mr. Eller’s $27 billion is a red herring if ever there was one. By combining the state education budget with federal and local dollars, he arrives at that eye-popping figure, designed to suggest that we are somehow over-spending on our schools. In point of fact, Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom ten of all states in the entire country in the proportion of education funding provided by the state. What this means is that Pennsylvania pushes the majority of responsibility for education funding down onto local towns and cities, which must raise property taxes to pay for their schools. This over-reliance on local property taxes is one of the primary reasons we have such great inequity in the keystone state, with wealthier communities often able to provide much more for their students than poorer communities.

So let’s summarize: our state does not adequately, equitably, or sustainably fund public education. Governor Corbett has slashed funding for our schools by nearly $2 billion these past two years, while distributing the state budget in the least equitable manner so that poor kids get the least. While our children suffer under staggering cuts to their programs, they are subjected to ever most high-stakes-testing that does nothing to actually provide meaningful feedback to families or their teachers. The stakes are so high that we now have a plague of cheating scandals across the nation as adults try to game the system.

This is not our vision for great public education. Parents who are opting their children out of the PSSAs next week are committing an act of civil disobedience aimed at the very heart of inequality in our country. They are doing so as an act of dedication to the institution of public education. Mr. Eller calls the opt out movement “flawed thinking,” “off the mark,” and “quite disturbing.” I would call high-stakes-testing those very things.

A Plague of Cheating

With Passover ending tomorrow, perhaps we should add another plague to the list that gets repeated at this time of year. You know: frogs, locusts, hail, boils, and now cheating on high-stakes-tests. On Friday, the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools was indicted along with 34 others, including teachers and principals, for widespread cheating – by adults – on the state’s standardized state tests. Investigators found 178 Atlanta educators had worked to change student answers, among other things, to increase the district’s performance. Eighty-two people have already confessed and the superintendent now faces up to 45 years in jail. [Washington Post, 3-30-13]

For a while, Atlanta appeared to be a testing success story, particularly given the number of poor and African American students in the district. Under Dr. Beverly Hall, student scores spiked – unbelievably high – and the American Association of School Administrators named her superintendent of the year. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invited her to the White House and she earned over a half million dollars in bonus pay tied to student performance. But the house of cards fell apart when prosecutors convinced a teacher to wear a wire, revealing how some were selected to meet secretly in back rooms donning gloves to erase and correct student answers on test sheets. [New York Times, 3-29-13]

But this is not just happening in Atlanta. The national obsession with test results – and the corporate-style reforms such as privatization based on them – has produced a plague of cheating scandals. The superintendent of El Paso, Texas is now in prison for taking low-performing students out of classes in order to increase the district’s test scores. A similar situation is under investigation in Ohio, where it appears several cities listed low-performing students as “withdrawn” to remove their scores from school totals. [New York Times, 3-29-13] And let’s not forget right here in Pennsylvania where our own state Secretary of Education, Rom Tomalis, was caught both lying and cheating about student test scores. [See “A Liar and a Cheat”]

FairTest (the National Center for Fair and Open Testing) released a report last week showing confirmed cases of test score manipulations in at least 37 states and the District of Columbia. Washington D.C., of course, was the site of an Atlanta-style story under former superintendent Michelle Rhee – now the darling of the corporate reform movement who is famous for publicly firing a principal and massive school closures – who oversaw her own “Erasure-gate.” FairTest has documented more than 50 ways that schools improperly inflate test scores and the organization’s public education director Bob Shaeffer explains, “These corrupt practices are inevitable consequences of the politically mandated overuse and misuse of high-stakes exams.” [FairTest, 3-27-13]

Pedro Noguera, the New York University scholar hired by the Pittsburgh Public Schools as a consultant, put it simply: “I don’t condone cheating but I see what happened in Atlanta and the other districts where cheating has occurred as a direct result of the insane fixation on raising test scores at the expense of actually insuring that children are learning. The real fault lies with the federal and state governments that have been applying the pressure on school districts.” [DianeRavitch, 3-30-13]

Yet some legislators want to ratchet up the stakes attached to testing even more. One particularly cruel example comes from Tennessee where Republican state Sen. Stacey Campfield has introduced a bill calling for the state to cut welfare benefits to parents when their children do not perform well on standardized tests. [FoxNews, 1-28-13] Talk about high-stakes.

Parents, students, and teachers all over the country are starting to fight this madness through the civil disobedience of opting-out. [For more on the movement here in PA, see “Time’s Up”] Yinzercator Kathy Newman wrote a wonderful Op-Ed, copied below, that appeared on the front page of yesterday’s Sunday Forum section explaining why her family is opting out. The piece has gone viral on social media, with over 4,000 Facebook shares from the Post-Gazette website alone (as of 10AM this morning and climbing fast by the minute). Be sure to also check out the terrific conversation it has sparked on-line, with many teachers weighing in to explain their support for the opt-out movement.

It’s time to change the stakes in student assessment and end this plague of cheating. Like another one of the famous Egyptian plagues that took the lives of children, high-stakes-testing is stealing the educational lives of our children.


Why I Won’t Let My Son Take the PSSA:
The Opt Out Movement is Growing Because High Stakes Tests are Wrecking Our Schools

I am an English professor. So you can imagine how my pride was hurt when my 9-year-old son Jacob started bringing home low scores on his practice reading tests for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment.

My husband and I have been helping Jacob with his test-prep reading homework every weeknight this year, and it has been a grim slog. At times I have found myself getting angry when Jacob has fidgeted, or when he has had trouble focusing. Sometimes I have gotten angry when he simply hasn’t been able to answer the questions.

Then one day this March it dawned on me. I am getting angry at my son about a test. A test that I do not like. A “high-stakes” test that will put so much pressure on Jacob that it probably will not reflect his true abilities. I also realized something else: Jacob does not love to read.

After doing some research and talking with other parents, my husband and I decided to “opt out” Jacob from the PSSA tests. We are opting him out because we do not like what high-stakes tests are doing to Jacob, to our family, to his teachers, to his school and, ultimately, to our entire education system.

High-stakes tests like the PSSAs are used to evaluate, close and punish public schools, including my son’s school, Pittsburgh Linden, a K-5 magnet school in Point Breeze. Linden’s Adequate Yearly Progress score is bound to Linden’s PSSA test results. According to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, every public school in the United States must be 100 percent proficient in reading and math (based on test scores) by 2014.

Last year, Linden did not make AYP. In fact, only six Pittsburgh Public Schools did. A neighboring school, Colfax, which is one of the best schools in the East End, has been labeled “low-achieving” and is currently under something called “Corrective Action II.” Under this label, a school can be reconstituted, chartered or privatized.

High-stakes tests also warp the educational environment. This March, as Linden is gearing up for the PSSAs, the hallways were stripped bare as per state law. Artwork, motivational slogans, student-made posters, the Women’s History display my kids helped to make, my daughter’s picture of herself as a “writer” when she grows up, the “dream” statements everyone filled out in January with the large cutout of Martin Luther King — all of it has come down. During testing season, access to Linden’s new iPads — for which I helped to write the grant that allowed us to acquire them — will also be curtailed.

The curriculum at Linden is narrowing, too. As testing has ratcheted up, and as Gov. Tom Corbett’s billion-dollar cut to Pennsylvania’s K-12 education budget have kicked in, schools across the state are dropping programs that are not measured by tests.

Last year at Linden the third-grade band program was cut, dozens of hours of music instruction were cut, our science programming was reduced, and we were slated to lose our art teacher (fortunately we were able to save her). We lost dozens of hours of library instruction, and children are allowed access to the library only once every two weeks. Ironically, the loss of our library hours will hurt the students more when it comes to testing. A recent study found that “[w]ith a full-time librarian, students are more likely to score ‘Advanced’ and less likely to score ‘Below Basic’ on reading and writing tests.”

Also, there is the stress. Jacob, only a third-grader, has cried, gotten dejected and thrown fits over his test-prep requirements, both at home and at school. Sixth graders in our district will take 23 different tests this year — up from nine the previous year.

During the tests, students are treated like prisoners, with limited bathroom breaks and constant monitoring. These conditions are especially hard for special-needs children and children with Individual Education Plans.

Teachers are also stressed. My son’s third-grade teacher has been working so hard this year that he arrives many days as early as 6 a.m. and stays for hours after school, sometimes as late as 9 p.m. From around the district I am hearing stories about teachers crying in the hall — devastated by the harm they believe the tests are inflicting.

Let me be clear. I believe in evaluation as a tool — I use quizzes and other testing techniques in my college classroom. But high-stakes tests, tests used to label schools, teachers and students as failures, are damaging our nation’s educational system.

Here in Pittsburgh and across southwestern Pennsylvania, the movement to opt out of standardized testing is taking root. In the Pittsburgh Public Schools there are parents at Colfax, Greenfield, Liberty, Linden, Montessori and Phillips who are opting their children out of the PSSAs. Across the region, some parents in Mt. Lebanon, Somerset County and Westmoreland County are doing so as well. In Mt. Lebanon, a group of parents opted out when their children’s school cut back on recess, extended the length of the school day and reduced other school services, such as counseling and nursing — all to make way for more testing.

The opt-out movement is also swelling nationwide. Earlier this year, teachers in several Seattle high schools refused to administer a high-stakes test called the MAP. In Portland, Ore.; Providence, R.I.; and Denver, Colo., students themselves have been leading the charge against the tests. Just last month in Texas, more than 10,000 parents rallied against an increase in testing and decrease in funding for Texas public schools. Some of these actions are coming under the banner of United Opt Out National (unitedoptout.com).

Next month, while Jacob’s classmates are nervously sharpening their pencils and getting hushed by their teachers, Jacob is going to be in the Linden library, reading for pleasure — a pastime I have encouraged and rewarded since I realized that Jacob isn’t keen on reading.

With this act of civil disobedience, our family will contribute to the revolt against the standardized testing that is hurting students, schools and the quality of education. I want my children to learn, but also to love to learn. Don’t you?

Kathy M. Newman is an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University (kn4@andrew.cmu.edu).

Parents’ Passionate Plea

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.



Why I’m Going to D.C.

Two weeks from today I will be standing on a street-corner in our nation’s capitol giving a speech. That’s a strange place for an academic to be giving a talk, but this is no ordinary event. I’ve been asked to go to Washington D.C. to join public education advocates from all over the country for a four-day occupation of the sidewalk outside the U.S. Department of Education.

This “Occupy the D.O.E. 2.0” is essentially a national teach-in, with a different speaker every 20 minutes for four straight days. I’m honored to be sharing the microphone with the likes of education historian Diane Ravitch, Chicago teacher’s union president Karen Lewis, early childhood education expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige, filmmaker Brian Jones, education researcher Deborah Meier and many, many others. Pennsylvania will be in the spotlight the afternoon of Friday, April 5th, and I hope all of you from the keystone state will consider coming down for part, or all, of this significant event.

The occupation runs from April 4-7, 2013 and on Saturday, April 6, there will be an organized march to the White House. Organized for a second year in a row by the grassroots volunteers of United Opt Out National, the event promises to be a “gathering of progressive education activists endeavoring to resist the destructive influences of corporate and for-profit education reforms, which began in previous administrations and persist with the current one.” The planners explain, “We cannot and will not stand silent as the threats to dismantle our system of public education continue. These threats include the erosion of the teaching profession, excessive use of standardized testing, mandated scripted curriculum, the absolute disregard of child poverty, and reforms which disproportionately impact minority communities.”

Here’s my statement that is on the United Opt Out National homepage. I hope to see you there.


I am coming to Washington D.C. to Occupy the Department of Education this April because our public schools in Pennsylvania have lost $2 BILLION these past two years. Draconian state budget cuts of this magnitude are only possible when people stop believing in public education as a public good. Too many in this country have been swayed by the national narrative of “failing public schools” and taken in by the false promises of the corporate-reform movement with its seductive rhetoric of competition, choice, and accountability. But the implementation of those ideas has meant widespread privatization and out of control high-stakes-testing, causing real harm to our students, our teachers, and our schools. And poor kids — and students of color, in particular — have been harmed the most.

Here in Pennsylvania, our students have lost nearly 20,000 of their teachers; they’ve lost music, art, library, foreign languages and even tutoring and Kindergarten programs; kids are in classrooms with 39 students; and they are spending more and more of their precious time on testing and test-prep. Meanwhile, some of the deepest pockets on the planet have been dumping millions of dollars into our state through superPACs to get voucher laws and other privatization policies passed; ALEC has been writing our state legislation; four of the state’s top donors to political campaigns this past fall had direct ties to charter schools; and school districts in five Pennsylvania cities are literally circling the drain, on the verge of total collapse.

But there is hope. A grassroots movement of volunteer parents, students, teachers, and community members has been fighting back, educating itself on the issues, reaching out to learn from and work with others, and connecting to groups all over the country. I am coming to Occupy the DOE because in studying the history of social movements I have come to understand that ordinary people, acting together, make real change happen. I am coming to Washington D.C. to stand on a street corner with all of you to shout, “Public education is a public good!”

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.

No More Whoohoo

“Whoohoo!” Curb your enthusiasm kids and under no circumstances should you ever start a sentence like that. In another sign that high-stakes-testing is out of control and hurting our children, students are now being told to follow rigid writing guidelines that have nothing to do with real learning and everything to do with how they will be measured on tests.

At last week’s Rally for Public Education, Dr. Tim Slekar, head of the education department at Penn State Altoona, told the story about his son, Luke, just learning to read and write. Luke was supposedly having trouble responding to writing prompts and therefore not doing well in school. For example, instructed to write about a favorite time with his family, he started his little essay by saying, “Whoohoo! Let me tell you about my great vacation …” and earned a big fat zero for the assignment. The teacher explained to Dr. Slekar that if this had been the PSSA (Pennsylvania’s high-stakes, standardized test), his son would have failed. She then had Luke tell his dad what was “wrong” with his essay. “Whoohoo is not a sentence,” Luke said glumly, “and writing prompts must always start by restating the prompt.”

As Dr. Slekar told the dismayed audience at the Rally, the teacher was under tremendous pressure to make sure her students scored well on the PSSAs. “Luke was actually experimenting with writing and trying to communicate to his readers a sense of excitement – ‘Whoo hoo!’ … but the PSSAs were forcing Luke to parrot sentences in a pre-ordained structure so that low-paid temp workers would be able to score it.” Dr. Slekar calls this a “disastrous system” of high-stakes testing, that forces teachers to comply with systems established by legislators, not educators, and that actually damages student learning.

If you missed the Rally, please take four minutes to watch Dr. Slekar’s extremely compelling comments. (And we now have links to video of the rest of that amazing event at “What a Rally!”) Consider how parents all over the country have been opting their children out of these high-stakes-tests (including a big group right here in Mt. Lebanon); how entire schools of teachers in Seattle are refusing to administer such tests; how students in places like Portland, Oregon are standing up and fighting back. This Opt Out movement is not against assessment, it is opposed to high-stakes-tests that are being used to label our children, their schools and their teachers as failures; it is opposed to the culture of testing and test-prep that has pushed meaningful, rich learning experiences out of our schools; it is opposed to the perverse consequences of high-stakes pressure such as cheating scandals and stress-related symptoms in our children.

Some people have asked me what concern for high-stakes-testing has to do with budget cuts, which is where this grassroots movement started. The answer is that the historic budget cuts we are suffering here in Pennsylvania could not happen without the logic provided by high-stakes-testing. These tests provide the “data” that seem to “prove” that public education is failing; they reinforce what many (falsely) already believe about cities, urban youth, and students of color in particular. You cannot massively slash programs that have broad support: but high-stakes-tests and this insidious national narrative of “failing public schools,” have thoroughly convinced many that we need to scrap public education altogether and start over. Too many have lost faith that public education is a public good. And when that happens, Governor Corbett here in Pennsylvania (like many others around the country) can legitimize the defunding of our schools.

Meanwhile, the state uses PSSA test scores to label individual schools as failures and justifies draining public taxpayer dollars through the EITC corporate-tax credit programs, sending our revenues to private schools, while claiming we do not have enough money to support public education. And the tests themselves cost our state – us taxpayers – millions and millions of dollars, which are going to enrich private testing corporations that are making immense profits. Finally, when school districts are hit with budget cuts, they are forced to slash everything that doesn’t count on a test: since only reading and math are measured, students lose art, music, history, library, languages, and even tutoring programs (which just demonstrates how perverse this system really is). And when pressed to the limits of existence by state budget cuts those districts decide they must close individual schools, they inevitably shut down the “failing” school full of “under-achieving” students defined by those test-scores.

If you are interested in learning more about your legal right to opt your children out of high-stakes-testing, please join us for a conversation at the Squirrel Hill Library at 3:30PM this coming Sunday, February 24, 2013. The Opt Out movement is coming to Yinzer Nation. Whoo hoo!