Philly mom, others, 'opt out' kids from PSSAs

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Tomika Anglin pulled her daughter Simone out of Greenfield Elementary on Tuesday while the PSSAs were being administered.
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Tomika Anglin pulled her daughter Simone out of Greenfield Elementary on Tuesday while the PSSAs were being administered.
Posted: April 11, 2013

STUDENTS at Greenfield Elementary in Center City joined thousands of kids across Pennsylvania on Tuesday morning as they sharpened their pencils for six days of PSSAs - the grueling, high-stakes standardized tests that Pennsylvania educators use to evaluate schools and their teachers.

At that moment, parent Tomika Anglin was at the front office pulling her daughter Simone and a fifth-grade classmate out of school for the two hours that the PSSAs took place. Instead of proving their math and reading skills, the two children visited the nearby Free Library and toured the Ben Franklin Parkway. "We took some pictures, and we talked about the elements of the arts," Anglin said.

They also joined what a small but growing number of parents and education activists are calling "an act of civil disobedience."

Anglin is one of the first, small batch of Philadelphia parents to join a national "opt-out" movement - a grass-roots rebellion against the outsized role that standardized tests like the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) play in the day-to-day classroom experience, in the closure of urban schools rated as "failing," and in stressing out both students and their teachers, whose careers may soon ride on the results.

"I don't think standardized tests are an accurate measure of a child's ability or intellect," said Anglin, who also wants to send a message to the School Reform Commission and Philadelphia School District that they are not listening to parents on critical issues such as neighborhood school closings. "If everyone opted out," she said, "they could not afford not to listen to us anymore."

Stats on how many other parents are opting out of the PSSAs here aren't available. The Associated Press reported that across Pennsylvania only 260 out of about 932,000 students were excused from the math and reading PSSAs in the 2011-12 school year.

Movement supporters concede that the total number this year is likely small but growing - and interest in the idea has spiked. A Washington, D.C., protest last weekend against high-stakes testing drew 500 parents and kids, five times as many as last year.

Some of that spike came after the uproar over a cheating scandal in Atlanta in which the former superintendent, principals and teachers were charged with altering test results to inflate student achievement - amid similar probes here in Philadelphia.

At the same time, a pro-opt-out op-ed in the PittsburghPost-Gazette by English professor Kathy M. Newman went viral, gaining 42,000 "likes" on Facebook. Newman complained of the stress her third-grader endures for tests and of the cuts to art, music and library instruction that are refocused on test prep.

Timothy Slekar, an associate professor of teacher education at Penn State University at Altoona and a leader of the group United Opt Out National, has yanked his two kids from the PSSAs. He said he hears increasing tales of student anxiety.

"From parents, I've heard of 'night terrors' to literally 'cutting' as a form of anxiety," said Slekar. "Of going from a happy, engaged student to not wanting to get up and go to school."

Jessie Ramey - who teaches women's studies and history at the University of Pittsburgh and blogs at Yinzercation - said her sixth-grader was slated to go from nine days of standardized testing to 23 days before she decided to opt both her children out of the PSSAs.

"There's great research showing kids have learned how to take the test - but not learned actual content," said Ramey, noting a slew of other problems, including how the test results have been used to justify closing neighborhood public schools in favor of privately managed charters.

Timothy Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, didn't return a call from the Daily News on Tuesday but defended the PSSAs in an op-ed last week, writing that parent Newman's popular critique was "disturbing" and that the tests are a valid way to gauge whether teachers are doing their job and students are learning.

Right now, opting out of the PSSAs doesn't really hurt students, but critics of opting out say it could harm schools, which could fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards and lose federal aid if fewer than 95 percent of students take the test. In Pennsylvania, parents now can opt out their child for religious or moral reasons.

In Philadelphia, Anglin said her reasons for keeping her daughter away from the PSSAs are moral, even religious.

"I looked up 'religion' in the Oxford-American dictionary and it said a firm belief, a belief in something of great importance," she said. "My daughter could not be of more greater importance to me."


On Twitter: @Will_Bunch

Blog: Attytood.com

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