by Sue Ann Rybak
To opt out or not to opt out. That was the question at a recent screening of the documentary “STANDARDIZED Lies, Money & Civil Rights: How Testing Is Ruining Public Education” on March 25 at the Chestnut Hill Library, 8711 Germantown Ave.
The documentary contains testimonials by educational experts Dr. Mark Naison, a professor of history and chair of African American studies at Fordham University; Yong Zhao, director of the Institute for Global and Online Education; Dr. Timothy Slekar, dean of the School of Education at Edgewood College, and many others who say that the only people benefiting from these tests are the companies who designed them.
In the film, Naison claims that Race to the Top is worse than No Child Left Behind because it “insists that you have to close schools, that you have to rate teachers and schools on the basis of student test scores, and you have to give preference to charters.”
“Barack Obama has done more damage to public education than any president in modern history,” he said.
About a dozen parents, educators and community members viewed the film and discussed whether they should opt their children out of PSSAs (Pennsylvania State Standardized Assessment) or Keystone State exams. PSSA testing for grades 3-8 begins April 13. Keystone exams for high school students start May 13.
Under Pennsylvania Code, Title 22, Chapter 4, section 4 (d)(5), parents have the right to opt out of standardized testing for their children. In Pennsylvania, the exemption is “religious,” but parents do not have to explain their religious reasons to school officials.
Mt. Airy resident Susan Nordlof, 47, who attended the meeting, said while some people are driven by the experience of their children and the distress it’s causing them, she is more concerned about the bigger picture.
“What are the standardized tests being used for and what are they doing, not just to individuals but to our schools and our education system,” said Nordlof, a nurse practitioner.
Beginning in 2017, students will be required to pass three Keystone exams – Algebra I, Biology and Literature – to graduate.
Tonya Bah, 49, of Ogontz, whose twins are autistic, said, “the State of Pennsylvania sets the terms of compliance by mandating that all public school students are assessed using either the PSSA, PASA or the Keystone State exam. The PASA is the alternative assessment to the PSSA for students with IEP’s or disabilities that present hardships taking PSSA.”
She added that the PASA is videotaped and has three levels – A, B and C – based on the student’s cognitive and physical disability. Bah’s son, an eight-grader, takes the lowest form of the PASA.
“Many Principals in area schools aren’t aware that PASA should be an elective for a student with a learning disability,” Bah said. “It is up to the IEP team to recognize this option and place it in the students IEP. The PASA is a standardized form with three choices asked in the same manner three times and then used to grade a response my son neither understands or later has explained to him. There is no follow up, no carry over, no pattern other than wrong, wrong, wrong, or incorrect, incorrect, incorrect. It does not support or work in conjunction with his personalized IEP or progress report. It is the definition of insanity.”
Bah added that her daughter, who also is autistic, scored advanced before she was opted out.
“What she was advanced in we will never know because the score is reported, not the answers or questions.” she said. “She alone saw her test. Oh, her and the test scorer who is and resides God knows where. Teachers I know, teachers I trust. What good is a spelling test grade if I don’t see what words I got right or wrong.”
Mt. Airy resident Robin Roberts, a member of the Opt Out Philly group opting out of testing, said her decision to opt her three children out of what she called an “insane testing regime” came after a great deal of research.
“Pennsylvania is one of only a few states that have an opt-out clause for the state test,” said Roberts, a Parents United for Public Education leader. “Most people have no idea that they can opt out of the tests. The lack of knowledge fuels the data-driven machine that is accountable to no one, makes huge profits for a precious few, and falsely labels our children, schools and teachers as failures.”
“We spend millions of dollars in a broke school district on testing that could and should be prioritized for providing basic safety in our schools, quality personnel and supplies, extracurricular activities – sports and clubs, art, music, science kits and lab facilities, and novel cultural projects and programs,” she wrote in a blog at parentsunitedphila.com. “In essence, we are opting out of creating the stimulating, nurturing learning environment that all students should have access to and parents and teachers strive to develop.”
Roberts noted that she is not against all standardized testing.
“However, the PSSA is a poorly constructed instrument that is not reliably tested,” she said. “It has predetermined failure rates of 35-45 percent even before the test begins.”
Roberts said that the assessments are scored by temporary workers who are paid by the test.
“They are not experts and are given only one metric to grade the test,” she said.
Roberts added that prior to opting out, both her children did well on the exam, but said she didn’t want their self-worth to be based on a test score.
She suggested that parents who are thinking about opting their children out of standardized tests go to www.workingeducators.org, adding that parents who do decide to opt their children out of standardized tests have the right to have their children in school.
“Students must be supervised and engaged in productive work,” Roberts said. “They can’t sit in a room and stare at a wall.”
Jacqueline Garden-Marshall, who taught music in the Philadelphia School District for 33 years before retiring, said that when the PSSA test began at her elementary school, it was given only to the third and fifth graders.
She said the education system should focus more on educating the whole child by exposing them to a variety of subjects – music, art, science, dance, media and many others.
“We need to help kids find their passion,” Garden-Marshall said. “If you have a bad day and take the test and don’t do well, then where are you going to be?”
She said her granddaughter was told recently that she couldn’t practice her musical instrument in school because she had to prepare for the PSSAs.
“The test is meaningless to her self-worth,” said Garden-Marshall, who has volunteered at several schools in Northwest Philadelphia, including Lingelbach Elementary School in Germantown.
“We need to come together as a community to fight for our children’s education,” she added.
Juanda Myles, an 18-year veteran of Penrose Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia, said she has seen both sides of the issue as a parent and as an educator.
“We are failing our children here in the United States because we are not teaching them how to apply mathematics and other skills in everyday life,” she said.
Myles said often many students are often placed in special education because English is not their first language.
“The test does not address the needs of English language learners who must take the test in English without interpretation services,” she said. “If kids were tested in their own language (on PSSAs), they would score much higher.”
Myles said too often children are sorted and ranked according to their test scores.
“If you already assume a child can’t do anything, then they are not going to learn,” she said. “If you don’t have high expectations of them, then they are going to think they can’t learn anything.”