Some parents having their children opt out of PSSA exams

Robin Roberts' three children won't be taking the PSSA tests at their Mount Airy school. "If it's so important for us to do well . . . why are they not setting us up to succeed?" she asks.
Robin Roberts' three children won't be taking the PSSA tests at their Mount Airy school. "If it's so important for us to do well . . . why are they not setting us up to succeed?" she asks. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 25, 2014

Robin Roberts did the math, and she was astonished.

By Roberts' count, her third grader was going to spend six school days - at least 12 hours - taking state standardized tests beginning this month at C.W. Henry Elementary, a public school in Mount Airy. Her fifth grader would lose nine school days to the PSSAs, and her eighth grader 11 days.

That troubled her.

"If our schools are not getting the resources to offer a basic education, what is happening?" she asked. "If it's so important for us to do well on these tests, why are they not setting us up to succeed? The test doesn't say anything about what my children have learned, what they're able to achieve."

So Roberts opted her three children out of the exams, which the Philadelphia School District will begin administering Monday. She is part of a small but growing group of parents who are pushing back against the standardized tests that for the last decade-plus have been the most important metric by which schools are judged.

State exam results matter. Schools that score consistently poorly can be closed, restructured, or given to a charter organization. What's more, the results of the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of State Assessment) are key for admission to selective high schools.

Nevertheless, a local network of parents and teachers is advocating that families learn more about the exams, understand their rights, and consider having their children skip them. The protests are often two-pronged: Parents say they don't believe the tests are best for their kids, and they believe opting out is one political act they can take against a state that underfunds public schools.

Nationally, "we're seeing an explosion of protest activities regarding high-stakes testing. Opting out is the biggest one," said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, a standardized-test watchdog organization.

Although Philadelphia's movement is small, it's growing, and Schaeffer expects it to continue to, mirroring trends in Chicago, New York, and other places.

State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester), who has been publicly wary of the way standardized tests are used, is not surprised interest is growing in the opt-out issue.

"Every time the government ups the stakes of these exams, it puts parents in a position where they have no choice but to ask if this is the right thing," he said. "This is probably the only way they can protest against the state stamping 'failure' on the students, teachers, and schools who don't have adequate resources for their children to succeed."

Philadelphia public school parent Alison McDowell sees many things wrong with the tests - how much time many schools spend preparing students for them, how they cause children stress and do not inspire innovative thinking, how they seem unfair to students whose first language is not English.

"A lot of Philadelphia parents feel disempowered, but this is one thing we can do: If you and your child are entwined in a system that seems fundamentally unjust, you can refuse the test," said McDowell, an organizer of the local group studying tests and exploring opting out who recently attended a national conference on the subject. "Tests don't seem to be helping our kids, and they seem to be diverting resources out of classrooms."

McDowell's daughter, a seventh grader at Masterman, did not take a PSSA field test this year. But she will take the PSSA, because seventh-grade scores matter in high school admissions.

"Next year," McDowell said, "we will definitely opt out."

Pennsylvania allows parents to exempt their children from standardized tests for religious reasons. Many districts, including Philadelphia, do not question opt-out requests.

Jo-Ann Rogan did not permit her son Ryan to take the PSSAs last year, when he was a student at Cook-Wissahickon Elementary in Roxborough. This year, he attends Education Plus Academy Cyber Charter, taking courses both online and at the school's Abington learning center, and she has exempted him again.

Ryan, a fourth grader, has some special needs and would not pass the exam, Rogan said.

"Why spend a week of his life to make him feel bad about himself?" she asked. "It's trying to make one size fit everyone, and that's not the case."

Education Plus began administering the PSSAs last week. Ryan went with his mother to the Franklin Institute, where they learned about aerodynamics and engineering.

Some teachers are encouraged by the pushback.

Amy Roat, who teaches English-language learners at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, has seen tests become "more and more omnipresent" over the last decade.

"I feel like these tests are driving the bus and taking us on the wrong path," she said.

At Roat's school, 80 percent of students fail to meet state standards.

"The kids in my school are very smart, and standardized tests don't reflect completely who they are," she said. "How is this test working for them? It's doing the opposite of helping them. I think that the failure is not a bug of the system - I think it's a design of the system."

Parents, she said, should know more about the test, and should consider having their children skip it if they believe it's not working well for them, Roat said.

A district official said that as of Thursday, seven PSSA opt-out requests had been received.

Roat's prediction?

"By next year, it's going to be a different story," she said. "I don't think it's going to be a little fringe group of people. People are smart, and they're going to realize that all of these things that people are saying are helping kids are not actually helping kids."


kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146 @newskag

www.inquirer.com/schoolfiles

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