PHILADELPHIA – When students at Pittsburgh’s Linden Elementary School sit down to take the PSSAs starting today, Kathy Newman’s third-grader will be sitting out.
Instead of poring over the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams with his peers, 9-year-old Jacob will be reading in the library or helping out in his younger sibling’s classroom.
Newman has exercised the rarely used opt-out provision for the annual standardized tests – and caused a buzz by encouraging others to follow her “act of civil disobedience.”
Her op-ed piece in last weekend’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in which she writes that the stressful tests “warp the educational environment,” went viral on social media and in education circles. The response, she said, has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
“I’m surprised that it struck such a chord because I think it could be seen as a radical idea,” Newman told the Associated Press.
Opting out is extremely unusual in Pennsylvania: Only 260 out of about 932,000 students were excused from the math and reading PSSAs last year; an even lower number opted out of the science exam, according to the state Education Department.
It’s hard to tell how many parents will follow Newman’s lead, as opt-out data from this year’s tests won’t be available until fall, department spokesman Tim Eller said.
But Newman said she is hardly alone, citing nationwide examples of opt-out initiatives spearheaded by parents who are upset about “what we see high-stakes testing doing to our children.”
The PSSAs are given to students in grades 3-8 and 11. For the past several years, the math and reading portions have been used to determine the federal benchmark known as AYP, or “adequate yearly progress,” under the No Child Left Behind law.
Schools that fail to make AYP receive extra oversight and, eventually, could end up with new staffs or be shut down. Testing opponents say the pressure to hit that target leaves little room for anything but rote learning and, in extreme cases, has led to cheating.
On last year’s exams, the proportion of Pennsylvania students performing at or above their grade levels was 75.7 percent in math, 71.9 percent in reading and 61.4 percent in science.
The law requires all students to be at grade level by 2014, a goal most people acknowledge is unrealistic. Pennsylvania has applied for a waiver from No Child Left Behind, meaning schools will soon not have to worry about meeting – or missing – AYP.
But the state will keep the exams, which Eller said give parents “information to see how their child is performing academically based on state standards, and (provide) educators with feedback on their instructional methods.”
Starting this fall, PSSA scores will comprise part of the new state-mandated teacher evaluations.
Parents are allowed to inspect the PSSAs ahead of time and opt out if the exams are “in conflict with their religious belief.” Newman said they conflict with her “humanistic-based faith.”
She also dismissed critics who have essentially said that her son “needs to live in the real world” and she should stop coddling him. Third-graders should not be saddled with hours of test prep homework each night, Newman said.
“What do we value as a society?” she said. “How are we going to teach creative, innovative thinking?”
Allentown blogger Angie Villa, who supports the national movement called United Opt Out, urged parents in a February post to opt out of the exams. Yet her own sixth-grade son will take the tests this year, as he has every year since third grade.
“The thing is, he would be the only one and he doesn’t want to be singled out like that,” Villa said. “I don’t want to create any extra stress for him.”
She also said her son feels he’s spent so much time getting ready for the exams that he might as well take them.
“They’ve narrowed the curriculum down to basically reading and math test prep,” Villa said. “Teachers really don’t have the freedom to teach their own lessons.”
The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is in a delicate spot. Because the tests will be part of evaluations, teachers can’t be seen as encouraging parents to opt out, union spokesman Wythe Keever said.
But the group has long criticized the role of high-stakes exams in No Child Left Behind because of the effect on curriculum, instruction and learning, he said.
“A national dialogue about the overuse or potential misuse of standardized testing results is a healthy conversation to have,” Keever said.