When the affluent Lower Merion School District proposed cutting music and art instruction in elementary schools, some teachers and parents saw it as part of a scheme to increase prep time for state-mandated standardized tests.
The loudest voice was Todd Marrone, a popular Welsh Valley Middle School art teacher, who started a blog to encourage a broader revolt against the growing role of high-stakes testing, which he called "the greatest threat to the humanities."
Marrone died in late 2013, but his protest has taken root in Lower Merion and is connecting with an increasingly powerful nationwide movement for kids to "opt out" of standardized tests such as the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSA.
Education officials hold that standardized tests are important tools for measuring student progress. Larry Wittig, chairman of the Pennsylvania Board of Education, says that the Keystone Exams, for example, assess student performance, prevent social promotion, and hold districts accountable.
But not everyone is buying into those arguments.
As students in grades three to eight prepare for four weeks of PSSAs in April, Lower Merion parents are screening an anti-test documentary by two local teachers, Standardized Lies, Money & Civil Rights: How Testing Is Ruining Public Education, on Feb. 25 at Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr.
"We are over-testing the kids. ... I think that it's taking up so much money and so many resources in the school," said Marlies Lissack, who joined the movement last year and whose Gladwyne Elementary School fourth grader is opting out of the PSSAs this year. "I finally reached a tipping point where I said, 'Enough.' "
The numbers opting not to take the test in Lower Merion more than doubled, from 13 in 2013 to 28 last year. The band of resisters is joining what has become a feverish battle in other parts of the country. It pits education officials against vocal teachers and parents who feel test prep and rote memorization are replacing quality classroom learning.
In New Jersey, for example, brewing unrest over a new $186 million commercially developed program called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, has led to fast-tracked legislation in Trenton calling for a three-year moratorium on using the results and giving parents more power to opt out their kids.
Nationally, thousands of children and their parents shunned the required tests - a whopping 60,000 in New York state, the epicenter of the protests. At least eight states are rolling back or easing testing mandates - including high school graduation requirements - to some degree.
Even though Pennsylvania is one of just a handful of states that expressly give parents the legal right and a procedure for opting out, protests here evidently have been a little slower to gain steam.
Marrone, the late Lower Merion teacher, had argued passionately on his blog that he believed the PSSAs and other tests had insidious impacts.
"How many years do you think it will take a high-stakes test-driven model to completely disenfranchise students, break quality educators and bankrupt districts?" he wrote. "Maybe three? Then what? Voucher systems and private takeovers will seem like a great alternative, because privately run schools don't need to play by state rules and regulations."
These days eighth-grade teacher Danielle Arnold-Schwartz has picked up the baton from Marrone, who died in December 2013. Arnold-Schwartz also started a blog and has expressed worries about the role of corporations in testing and related school matters. "As a teacher I get e-mails all day from companies trying to sell Common Core test prep," she said, adding she wonders whether those efforts will have an impact on suburban schools.
"Cities were the appetizer for corporate education reform," said Arnold-Schwartz, citing Philadelphia, where children and parents have been abandoning decaying public schools for charters, "and suburbs are the main course." Her own children will sit out the PSSAs in Lower Merion this spring.
Even school administrators, such as Lower Merion's acting superintendent, Wagner Marseille, say they have problems with the high-stakes tests. Marseille said the tests take too much time away from classroom instruction, and he opposes the Keystone Exams as a graduation requirement.
The Keystone tests have become a hot-button issue. The high school test differs from the PSSA in that there's no total opt-out: A student who refuses to take the Keystone Exam must instead tackle a difficult 15-hour online exercise, since state officials say the Keystone is not an assessment but a pathway to graduation.
But low scores on the early rounds of Keystones - 29 percent of Lower Merion students fell short of the state standard in biology last year, while the figure soared to 96 percent in some Philadelphia schools - are fueling a backlash.
In Harrisburg, State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester) says he's introducing legislation to end the Keystone tests as a graduation requirement.
Alison McDowell, a state coordinator for the anti-testing group United Opt Out, said she's anticipating a surge of interest this year after results from the newest Keystone tests are publicized. "We're laying a lot of groundwork," she said, "so whatever happens over the summer, people will be able to plug in and get informed about what their rights are."
"I do feel that the tide is turning," said Cheryl Masterman, one of the first wave of activists in Lower Merion whose three children opted out last year. She said that at first it was "hard to get parents in the Main Line interested, because until recently they thought the test scores would affect the values of their house."
What's changed, she believes, is the growing time that students are telling parents they spend on test prep. "Even now as soon as you get back from Christmas break you see the homework change," she said. "It becomes more fill-in-the-bubble-type homework."