Pennsylvania parents take stand against standardized tests
By Kari Andren
Published: Saturday, April 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
As students prepare to take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams this week, a growing number of parents are refusing to let their children take the high-stakes standardized exams aimed at showing which schools are excelling or failing.
It's part of a national groundswell of opposition by parents who cite design flaws in standardized tests, increasing anxiety in students and teachers, and unrealistic performance standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The 2001 law requires all public schools that receive federal funding to administer a statewide standardized test annually. By 2014, schools must have 100 percent of students score proficient or better in reading and math to meet the federal benchmark.
In Pennsylvania, parents can exclude their children from PSSA tests, given in grades 3 through 8, based on religious objections, although many of the parents contacted cited reasons other than religion for their decision to opt out.
When pressed on how their objections are tied to religion, some parents contend that low test scores lead to cuts in school resources, rather than increases, which exacerbates gaps in racial or economic achievement. They believe that violates many religions' social justice missions.
By law, districts cannot deny an opt-out request.
“The purpose (of No Child Left Behind), while in one sense is admirable — why not reach for the stars? — is also unreachable,” said Timothy Slekar, an associate professor and head of the Division of Education, Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State-Altoona. “The idea that every student in every fifth-grade classroom is going to read at a proficient level, that's just not the case.”
Slekar excluded his son, Luke, from standardized tests three years ago and helped found United Opt Out, a national group that protested standardized testing this weekend in Washington with a sit-in outside the Department of Education and a march to the White House.
The event drew fewer than 100 people last year, but Slekar expected several hundred opt-out supporters to participate this time.
Opt-outs in reading and math increased 21 percent statewide from the 2010-11 school year to 2011-12, while opt-outs in science testing increased 36 percent, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Data for the current school year is not available, according to Tim Eller, spokesman for the department.
Jennifer Jablunovsky, whose older children attend Ligonier Valley High School part time and are home-schooled part time, said she was shocked by how much time her daughter spent preparing for and taking the PSSAs when she attended public school full time in eighth grade.
In the end, Jablunovsky said, it's the way student performance and public funding are connected that drove her decision to exclude her children from the testing.
“Funding is tied to the scores, so not only are the teachers penalized for poor grades, but really the children are expected to perform like trained seals to earn the money for their schools,” Jablunovsky said. “I think there is something very wrong in that assumption.”
“The things I'm really worried about as a parent are the things I see happening in our schools — a really drastic narrowing of our curriculum, in part because of (state) budget cuts,” said Jessie Ramey, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pittsburgh who is excluding her two children from testing at Pittsburgh Colfax K-8 in Squirrel Hill.
“Our curriculum was once very rich. It's now very narrowed in our school,” said Ramey, who planned to attend the Washington sit-in. “When states hand out these budget cuts, (schools) have to keep only what is tested.”
Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane defended the district's curriculum.
“We have worked hard on our curriculum areas outside of PSSAs. We've done a lot of work on social studies, especially at the high school level,” Lane said. “We think social studies matters. We think health matters.”
At the same time, she said, there's value in focusing on reading and math.
“So much of the rest of their lives is dependent on their ability to do that well. I don't want their options in life shut down because they can't read or they don't have adequate skills in math,” Lane said.
The district has received 14 opt-out requests and could have more trickling in, but likely fewer than 20, she said. Last year, opting out wasn't a hot topic, so while the district might have gotten a few requests, there were not as many as this year, she said.
Results in jeopardy?
There could come a point where opt-outs have an unintended consequence: If fewer than 95 percent of students at a given school fail to take the PSSA tests, the school automatically fails to make adequately yearly progress, or AYP.
“It could skew the results” if enough students opted out,” Lane said. “But that's not the parent's worry. Their job is to worry about their child — not the district, not the school.”
Hempfield Area School District Superintendent Andy Leopold said the district has received one opt-out request this year.
“(One opt out) does not impact our scores. It does not impact our student sample, so for us it's really a non-issue,” Leopold said.
PSSA test scores at the individual and school level account for 30 percent of a teacher's evaluation score under an evaluation formula signed into law last year.
Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said the group supports a parent's right to opt out their child. He said the number has been small enough so far that he's not concerned about opting out affecting teacher evaluations.
“We think it's a healthy conversation to have — whether or not standardized tests are over emphasized in this country's educational system,” Keever said.
Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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