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Standardized-testing opponents predict increase in opt-outs

Debra Srogi’s son has taken the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test only once, and she vows he won’t take it again.

As a third-grader at Whittier Elementary School, he was losing sleep and interest in school as he stressed over the PSSA tests, Srogi said. He scored well, but Srogi decided last year to join a growing number of parents who “opt out” of having their children take the state standardized tests.

She went to the school to look at the test and told the principal her son would not be sitting for the examination based on her religious objections.

“I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and I have a biology degree,” said Srogi, who lives in Elliott.

The number of Southwest Pennsylvania parents who elect to exclude their children from the annual PSSA tests has been increasing during the past few years, and opt-out supporters say that trend is expected to continue since last year’s disappointing scores, when the tests were aligned with the more “rigorous” PA Core standards.

In Pennsylvania, all a parent has to do is visit the school and view the tests — which districts have to make available in the weeks leading up to the exams — sign a confidentiality notice and provide a written statement that they don’t want their child to take the test for religious reasons. They aren’t required to elaborate.

So far, area districts have reported that few parents have officially opted out for this year’s tests, but they have until the exams begin April 11 to do so.

Three students are opting out of the tests this year in the Freeport Area School District, program director Larry Robb said. There were about two last year.

In the Bethel Park School District, six students opted out as of this week. Twelve opted out of the language arts portion of the test last year, state data show. Three have opted out in Pittsburgh Public Schools, but more than 50 sat out the tests last year.

Mt. Lebanon School District has reported no opt-outs yet but had 28 last year, one of the highest totals among local districts, according to state data. Parents of 19 students in Franklin Regional School District have requested to opt out, up from 17 last year.

Supporters of the national opt-out movement expect the numbers to spike in 2016, the second year when Pennsylvania students will sit for the test since it was aligned to the PA Core Standards, the state’s version of the federal Common Core.

Students statewide scored an average of nine points lower in English and 35 points lower in math on the 2015 tests, said district officials, adding that they anticipated the drop.

But parents of children who regularly earn good grades might not have been so forgiving, said Tim Slekar, dean of the School of Education at Edgewood College in Madison, Wis.

“It really creates this PR storm around the Common Core of whether this a valid measurement of what kids can and cannot do, especially when it flies in the face of the observed success” of students who do well in school, he said.

Slekar, a Pittsburgh native, is co-founder of United Opt Out National, an organization that encourages parents to pull their children out of the testing sessions in protest of the time students are forced to spend preparing for tests that are used to measure school and teacher performance and determine funding.

“With more students failing, yeah, there’s going to be more people that opt out,” he said.

The movement has more firepower in some parts of the country, said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Education Policy in Washington, D.C. In parts of the country where officials did a good job of explaining the standards changes to parents, the movement doesn’t seem to be as strong.

“(Parents) just want answers, which is not an unreasonable expectation,” she said. “Good communication and engagement can go a long way.”

State data show the number of opt-outs in Pennsylvania increased more than sixfold during the past three years, but the movement hasn’t caught on as it has in New York, where one in five students skipped the state test last year, according to media reports. The number of students who opted out of the language arts exam in Pennsylvania grew from 457 in 2013 to more than 3,000 in 2015, state data show.

Steven Singer, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Steel Valley Middle School, said he’s gotten more questions from parents and students about their options regarding the tests, even though the Steel Valley district reported only one opt-out last year.

In a district as “under-resourced” as Steel Valley, opting out of the state tests isn’t a priority for parents, he said. But he predicts it will soon spread from the larger, high-achieving districts into small ones.

“I’ve never had a parent tell me, ‘Thanks so much for giving my child a standardized test,’ ” said Singer, a board member for BATs, a group of teachers across the country who advocate for the elimination of high-stakes testing. “I’ve never heard a student say, ‘Thank you so much for that test; I learned so much.’ ”

School districts have defended the use of testing as a way to measure student progress and teacher effectiveness.

“We use the information from these standardized assessments along with information gleaned from classroom interactions and classroom assessments to make decisions for individual students as well as to make decisions regarding programming across the district,” said Mary Catherine Reljac, assistant superintendent of the Franklin Regional School District. “No student, however, is defined by a single assessment, just as no district is defined purely by its assessment scores.”

Some parents, like education advocate Pam Harbin, contend the tests have moved beyond their intended use. Her 11-year-old son, a Pittsburgh student, hasn’t taken the PSSA.

“They use the test scores to shut down schools, to say schools are failing,” she said. “If you think about it, this is a snapshot. It’s a snapshot that you didn’t even get the results until the next year. All of your child’s months and months of learning, you’re supposed to be able to figure out what they know in this one test. And this is not how you assess kids.”

Elizabeth Behrman is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. She can be reached at 412-320-7886 or [email protected].


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