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Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences teachers Kelley Collings, center left, and Amy Roat, center right, pose for a portrait with parents, teachers and students Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015, in Philadelphia. Nearly 20 percent of students at a Philadelphia middle school won’t be taking the state’s annual standardized tests after teachers informed parents of the right to opt out of the assessments. Having children sit out the high-stakes exams has become a form of civil disobedience nationwide for those who say education officials aren’t listening to complaints about the volume of such assessments. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Testy over tests: Students snub standardized exams

PHILADELPHIA — When it comes to standardized tests, parents across the country are (a) concerned; (b) demanding change; (c) pulling tens of thousands of children out of the exams; or (d) making themselves heard at the top levels of government.

Answer: all of the above.

The backlash is kicking into high gear this spring as millions of students start taking new, more rigorous exams aligned with Common Core standards. Officials say the high-stakes assessments are crucial to evaluating student progress and competitiveness.

But a growing cohort of parents, students and teachers are rebelling against what they consider a toxic culture of testing. And officials, including U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have begun to listen as the grassroots movement engineers a series of high-profile rebuffs:

— Thousands of Colorado high school seniors walked out on new state-mandated science and social studies tests last fall.

— An Ohio middle school teacher published a letter calling state officials “bullies” for printing a pamphlet that warned of wide-ranging consequences if students sit out exams.

— At least 93 students at a single Philadelphia middle school are declining upcoming tests in a city that saw only 20 students districtwide sit out the exams last year.

The polite phrase for the burgeoning movement is “opt out.” But testing opponent Morna McDermott, a Baltimore-area mother of two, puts it more plainly: It’s a testing refusal movement — or a boycott.

“We’re not doing this willy-nilly because we’re a bunch of disgruntled soccer moms,” said McDermott, who belongs to the national United Opt Out movement and refuses to let her children participate in Maryland’s assessments. “This policy is harmful to our society, to our schools, to our teachers and to our children.”

Federal law requires states to test students annually in grades three through eight and once in high school. But schools and districts have layered on their own assessments, leading students to take an average of 113 standardized tests over the course of their K-12 careers, according to preliminary research by the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based organization representing large urban districts.

Test results measure student achievement but also can be used in teacher evaluations, overall school report cards and as high school graduation requirements. Opponents say the exams distract from real learning, put added stress on students and staff, waste resources and — especially in poor urban districts, like Philadelphia — contribute to the privatization of public education. Schools that score badly are sometimes turned over to management companies or become charter schools.

Some anti-testers would prefer an exam that samples random students to offer a snapshot without high stakes attached. Others support rating schools through an accreditation process like that used by colleges and universities. Accreditation includes site visits, in-depth analysis and a detailed action plan.

Pennsylvania saw 1,064 students statewide opt out of required math tests last year, a tiny percentage of the 803,000 exams given, but a nearly fivefold increase from 2011, according to the state Education Department.

In New York, about 67,000 students — almost 5 percent — sat out the statewide math test taken by 1.1 million of their peers last year.

Two teachers at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences in Philadelphia have been holding informational meetings about opting out of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams, which are given in April. The school serves mostly low-income students with many English-language learners and special education students — populations that traditionally test poorly.

Instructor Amy Roat said that it felt “unethical” not to publicize the little used opt-out option, and that she felt vindicated when the form letters they gave to students began coming back quickly.

“Very often you send papers home and they disappear into the abyss of someone’s backpack, never to be seen again,” Roat said.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard suggested parents are missing the bigger picture.

“We cannot live in a bubble,” Gallard said. “We have to see how our kids are doing compared to the individuals they’re going to be competing with.”

Philadelphia has little recourse, since Pennsylvania law allows parents to refuse the test. But many states have no such policy, leaving individual schools to handle opt-outs on a case-by-case basis.

New Jersey lawmakers, responding to a growing clamor, have introduced legislation to allow parents to decline participation in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College in Careers, or PARCC, exam.

The PARCC, which is debuting this year in New Jersey and 11 other states, is among the new generation of tests aligned to the Common Core — standards adopted by 43 states that outline the math and language skills students should master in each grade. Student achievement is expected to drop because of the new rigor.

The consequences of missing the exams are unclear and not uniform. In Illinois, the state board of education threatened to withhold funds from districts that don’t administer the PARCC to all eligible students. Ohio officials warned that third-graders might not be promoted to fourth grade, and that some high schoolers won’t get diplomas. In New Jersey, opting out could affect whether students qualify for gifted-and-talented programs.

Still, testing opponents can claim small victories. Pittsburgh cut out 33 hours of annual testing for some elementary students this year after re-evaluating its exam portfolio. Philadelphia’s superintendent this week pledged to include opt-out information in districtwide handouts about the upcoming exams.

And Duncan, the education secretary, pledged last month to “urge Congress to have states set limits” on the amount of time spent on standardized tests.

“The call for thoughtful change from educators and families has been absolutely clear,” Duncan said.

One comment

  1. I informed my local board of education during public comment that my son (6) will not be sitting for the PARCC testing (if it is still around) when he reaches third grade. I am quite serious as I feel PARCC and everything behind it is not in the best interest of any student – any teacher – any grade. Testing 8 year olds for career readiness is in itself inappropriate. Basically Common Core attempts to centralize everything – and this robs the spirit from the classroom. I feel this process it is hurtful to students for several reasons not limited to these:

    1. PARCC will be administered on computer rather than paper which places pressure on our youngest of students to learn keyboarding (my son is already learning in first grade) and be exposed to computers even before they have had the experience and develop the proper motor skill to form letters correctly. The computer forms letters perfectly at the push of a button. In the perfect world I would prefer students be on computer much later. Students would benefit by working with real materials rather than inundating elementary schools with I-pads, laptops, “smart-boards” and all the other hardware “sugaring” up classrooms our youngest occupy. Tight school budgets are spending yet more on hardware just to accommodate computerized PARCC. It would make much more sense to give just one test on paper. A school’s network infrastructure, computer operating systems, and labs are not designed as a professional testing center is – and should not be. Tests of this kind are documents that require paper and are more practical on paper. Give an appropriate and elegant test once per year on paper and get the results to their teachers in a week. Perhaps that might be helpful.
    2. The type of questions I found on PARCC in taking a practice test caused me a huge headache as they were twisted and confusing. I would not subject a young mind to such an assessment. In addition, activities in the classroom should not be centered on what is on this test. This robs the classroom of spontaneity – teaching moments – and valuable digression into areas of interest. A one size fits all top down totalitarian style mandated test is counter to our land’s free and open spirit.
    3. Data collection – I will not have 400 points of data collected on my son and held in a database of a private company (already under investigation) for unknown future use. Centralizing this is an invasion of my son’s privacy and disrespectful. I will not have a third party testing company hold his data. Every parent needs to be concerned about this – it is Un-American! More than enough data to inform instruction can be obtained in various ways within the school itself.
    4. Two tests per year are given. Massive amounts of instructional time is lost. Two tests because they will be used to evaluate teacher performance. This is flawed logic. There are way too many variables in the lives of students that can have dramatic effects on how they do in school. In addition, over evaluate a staff and you will have no time to inspire – no energy to motivate. Yet more tests, in most cases, are also administered for the so called “Student Growth Objectives“ – one more bad idea gone wild. Administrators have more than enough information within the building to inform instruction. In addition, local school districts are surrendering to a micromanaging overreach by the federal and state governments – as are teachers. What will be next? Teacher lesson plans from headquarters? We are going down a dangerous and undemocratic road.

    An educational leader, in my opinion, must be a catalyst – must be the cause of positive excitement about the world – like of the world, real curiosity, knowing of the world! The American poet and philosopher Eli Siegel stated “The purpose of education is to like the world through knowing it“ and I wholeheartedly agree. I hope Mr. Hespe and other leaders will respectfully find out more about his important philosophy and extremely effective teaching method.

    I believe that we are presently in a situation where teachers and students are not lifted up – but instead, insulted through SGOs, endless data collection, performance rubrics, and more. A once more collegial relationship is being replaced by a corporate style data collecting and crunching top down management – (a la McDonald’s) filling out endless computerized evaluations of teachers digitally warehoused by a centralized and privatized third party company. If more weight were given to supporting and lifting our teachers – more resources given to motivating, exciting, and further educating them – it would, in my opinion, be very wise – as our students, our children, my child, would benefit. We are missing that boat all should be on – parents, teachers, administrators, elected, BOE members, and our children.

    I intend to be a vocal critic / advocate for my son and all his classmates at PTA meetings, BOE meetings and even council meetings in my own town. I hope more and more parents will object to mandating of Common Core / PARCC / teacher over- evaluation, and hope that the state reconsiders how it sees its schools, its teachers, and all its young residents across a most uneven (and unfair) financial spectrum. What is desperately needed is people centered decisions and laws – not profit centered.

    I believe Dr. Maria Montessori saw children as individuals and respected the differences – and different rates of development found in each young mind – this is needed – not a one size fits all (profit centered) approach. Most importantly, in order to have schools be more successful everywhere, the state must work hard to close the huge financial gap within and between communities and lift communities rather than attempting to privatize schools in the most needy areas. That is no solution and an ugly cop out by our government that increasingly seems to be on the side of the profiteers – not the people.
    David Di Gregorio, Parent
    Englewood Cliffs, NJ