Shakeda Gaines, a volunteer at Thomas K. Finletter School, said she felt empowered when discovering the opt-out movement because her daughter gets so stressed out during testing time. (Photo: Harvey Finkle)
“Opting out” is shorthand for declining to take a standardized test. Pennsylvania students are legally entitled to do so, but until recently just a few hundred skipped exams each year.
Those numbers began to climb significantly around 2012, as opting out began to pick up steam in other states, and parents and organizers spread the word.
In 2015, Pennsylvania’s opt-outs tripled from the year before, with more than 4,000 students declining to take the PSSAs. Most opted out formally, using the state’s official (and somewhat cumbersome) “religious objection” opt-out process.
But others opted out informally, simply refusing to take the test on the day it was given.
For Philadelphia’s Shakeda Gaines, whose daughter gets good grades but feels badly stressed when tested, discovering opt-out was deeply empowering.
“I remembered that I was a parent, and these are my children,” she said. “If I say they don’t take the test, they don’t take the test.”
Variations on Gaines’ attitude can be found in Pennsylvania communities of all kinds – urban, suburban, and rural.
Agendas and interests differ somewhat among those constituencies. Suburban communities often see tests as unnecessary intrusions that dilute quality programs. Urban advocates often see them as unjust demands on underfunded schools, engineered to trigger closures or charter conversions.
But what unites all sides is the belief that over-testing is undermining learning. Parents in cities and suburbs alike cite the same factors: stressed-out students, overburdened teachers, ever-rising test-prep demands and a distinct lack of valuable information from the entire process.
“The biggest change is how we spend the school day. It’s all about more time for instruction,” said Marissa Golden, a Lower Merion school board member and professor of political science at Bryn Mawr College. “I worry that tests encroach on well-rounded people.”
Even in her prestigious and relatively prosperous district, she said, arts and electives are down, test prep and remediation are up, and the test results produce little useful feedback for schools.
“It’s hard to use them as an educational tool,” Golden said.
The result is growing frustration among parents and administrators and one of the state’s highest opt-out rates. Last year, almost 300 Lower Merion students opted out.
One such abstainer is Katy Morris, a Lower Merion 8th-grade teacher and mother of two. She not only opted out her own children, but also told parents that she wouldn’t be interrupting her regular classroom schedule for any special test prep.
“I wasn’t going to throw on the brakes,” she said.
Instead she offered students the option of afterschool help or take-home test preparation projects.
“Parents came and said, ‘Thank you,’” she recalled.
Such opt-outs, while growing, represent just a tiny fraction of Pennsylvania’s 800,000 test-eligible students – about one half of one percent of the total.
In Lancaster County, for example, opt-outs have doubled each year for three years, but still involve just a few hundred students. In Philadelphia, the number of PSSA opt-outs jumped by a factor of about 30 last year – from about 20 students to 595, in a district of about 130,000.
But even where actual opt-outs are low, school officials are registering many of the same complaints as opt-out promoters: that testing has become intrusive, expensive, and counter-productive.
School boards statewide – Pottsgrove, Upper and Lower Merion, West Chester, Spring-Ford and more – have passed resolutions calling on the state to relax and rethink its test regimen. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association has done the same.
And in Muhlenberg County, near Reading, one school board member who struggled to solve rigorous new 4th-grade math problems said, “At some point, I start to applaud the opt-out movement. All we're doing is teaching the test and then stressing the heck out of the kids for two weeks while we give them this test.”
All this suggests that the opt-out movement is less radical fringe than leading edge.
“They’re driving an important conversation, staking a position about how harmful tests are when they’re misused,” said Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters Pennsylvania.
“There’s a place for testing, but it should be limited. … [We shouldn’t] load everything and the kitchen sink into the results,” she said.
Experiences in other states show that the movement can gain significant traction when conditions are right. In New York, fueled by unhappiness with new Common Core standards, refusal rates have reached 20 percent. Controversy over New Jersey’s tests has driven opt-outs there as high as 15 percent – leading to a new state law prohibiting financial sanctions for districts with high refusal rates.
And this fall, the movement got a national boost when the Obama administration endorsed new research showing that the average U.S. student now takes about 112 mandated tests between kindergarten and graduation – a system the report labeled “illogical” and “incoherent.”
In the wake of that report, by the Council of the Great City Schools, Philadelphia School District’s new task force will reconsider all of its assessments, accepting recommendations to make them more effective and less intrusive.
Among those welcome to join are opt-out advocates. Chris Shaffer, the District’s head of curriculum and leader of the task force, said, “I want to get something that's representative of everybody.”
The downside of opting out
If the tide of public opinion is turning somewhat in the test skeptics’ favor, another trend has been at work too: one that has embedded testing ever deeper at every level of state and district decision-making.
Much of that trend has been driven by federal law. That may soon change – a tentative deal in Congress could eliminate a wide range of No Child Left Behind mandates – but for now, test data is still used to drive charter school conversions, teacher evaluations, and closures.
In Pennsylvania, even as lawmakers consider relaxing Keystone mandates, they’re also considering new, data-driven laws around teacher layoffs (replacing seniority as a deciding factor with performance scores) and school transformations (requiring districts to turn low performers over to charters or private providers).
In Philadelphia, exams and assessments of all kinds are now being given virtually every day to one group of students or another. These include diagnostics, benchmark tests, mandated PSSAs and Keystones, PSATs, SATs, NAEPs, and more.
And although students may face no formal penalties for opting out of a given test, they can definitely lose opportunities. PSSAs are already a requirement for students seeking admission to Philadelphia’s magnet middle and high schools. And for now, Keystone exams remain a a 2017 graduation requirement.
“There’s a lot of parents in Philly who might be happy to opt out their kids, to their kids’ detriment,” Gobreski said. “When test scores are used to help evaluate kids for magnet schools or college, parents have to weigh the choices carefully.”
Opting out is a chance that not every family can afford to take, Gobreski said.
“Well-off parents are in a better position to take risks,” she said.
Nor is it a choice all parents have time to worry about. Tonya Bah, a mother of two opted-out teenagers from Philadelphia’s Olney area, said, “In my neighborhood, folks are worried about putting food on the table.”
And for many, the concept cuts deeply against the grain of family culture.
“For achievement-oriented parents who want to be the best, these tests are one more marker,” said Lower Merion’s Golden.
Some parents, like Gaines, aren’t worried about any of this. If her daughter skips the Keystones and needs to get a GED to get into college, she said that she’s fine with that.
“Temple takes kids without diplomas,” she said. “She’ll still have her credits.”
But testing still has strong support in many political and advocacy circles.
“The system needs a feedback loop,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children & Youth, who helped develop the Keystones as a top aide to former Gov. Ed Rendell.
Qualitative assessments are “the only available, consistent, and objective source of data about disparities in educational outcomes,” wrote a coalition of civil rights groups, including the NAACP, in a recent statement.
This fall’s developments in both Harrisburg and Washington could eventually bring significant changes to Pennsylvania policy – changes that could make it easier for legislators and administrators to reshape all of the state’s data-driven decisions.
“It’ll be interesting to see how it works out – if there will be a need for opt-out,” said Kirsch.
But for now, Pennsylvania’s basic testing framework remains in place, and parents like Bah hope the state can make the best of it.
“Should there be testing? Absolutely. But there needs to be some kind of response to the answers,” she said.
“I would like to trust teachers again, empower teachers again. I want to go back to where I can get something wrong on a test, and then follow up so I can correct what’s wrong.”