Last year, a small, angry band of parents and teachers in the Lower Merion School District took on a big challenge: convincing their neighbors that the intensifying emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests was harming their children's education.
This year's challenge: coming up with enough yard signs so converts to the cause can broadcast their displeasure with the coming Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSA, tests given in grades three through eight. Their opt-out message - "Our kids & schools are more than a score" - has popped up on curbsides around the affluent Main Line suburb.
Danielle Arnold-Schwartz, a Lower Merion teacher and local chapter leader of the national education activist group Parents Across America, said about 100 yard signs were snapped up for $1 each after a recent Villanova University screening of a documentary critical of high-stakes testing.
"There are people still asking for more," she said, "and it's not fully testing season yet."
The protest signs are a leading indicator that across the region, the parent-led push to opt out of standardized tests - whether the PSSAs, or Pennsylvania's controversial Keystone Exams, or New Jersey's year-old PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) - may be nearing a tipping point.
Earlier this month, anti-testing advocates in Pennsylvania won a major victory when Gov. Wolf signed a bill delaying until 2019 the use of the Keystones as a graduation requirement - a two-year stay that local superintendents and schools boards overwhelmingly supported. The tests were to be part of new state standards in Language Arts, Algebra 1, and Biology.
Last year, about 4,500 students in Pennsylvania sat out achievement tests; in New Jersey, the opt-outs numbered 115,000, or 14 percent of the exam-taking pool. Activists predict those figures will spike upward when the next round of tests begins late next month and continues into April. Across the country, an estimated 640,000 opted out last year in the 14 states that reported, according to FairTest: National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
Perhaps more important are the signs that elected officials, from the White House on down, are listening to the swelling criticism that excessive testing, with weeks of preparatory drills, puts undue pressure on students, robs them of classroom time for real learning, and is an unfair measure of teacher and school performance.
In a video posted on Facebook last year, President Obama said too much testing "takes the joy out of teaching and learning." In December, he signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), replacing the contentious No Child Left Behind law. ESSA gives states more leeway in how test results are used to evaluate students and teachers - although, like No Child, it allows for federal funds to be withheld from schools where participation falls under 95 percent.
Even Larry Wittig, Pennsylvania Board of Education chairman and a vocal supporter of the Keystones, said he doesn't see much value in third graders sitting through days of PSSA testing. He said the administration was seeking ways to comply with federal mandates, while having "a little more common sense."
Test proponents argue that the exams provide valuable comparisons with other districts and states and are used to evaluate teachers and administrators. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, schools with high numbers of opt-outs might suffer in state rankings, but there is no impact on state funding for those schools, and no penalties for the students who decline to be tested.
Last week, the National Association of Secondary School Principals came out against state and district policies that allow parents to opt children out of testing. "Just a few opt-outs would be enough to skew test results," and lead to incorrect assumptions about schools and staffs, warned the group's executive director, JoAnn Bartoletti.
"We certainly recognize that students spend far too much time in testing and test prep, and that scores are often misused and misapplied," she added. "But we prefer to address those issues directly instead of encouraging families to abandon the tests completely."
Longtime Haverford School Board member Phil Hopkins also urged parents not to opt out - even though high-stakes testing has "gone too far."
"When you're spending as much money as we do on education," Hopkins said, "eliminating accountability is not wise."
Nonetheless, Cherry Hill parent Rita McClellan asserted, "The tide is turning against these tests." Her two children, in 10th and seventh grades, sat out New Jersey's PARCC last spring. Like other opt-outs, they went to school but did their own work while classmates took the exams.
The average student now takes 112 standardized tests over the course of his or her schooling, according to Bob Schaeffer, public education director for Fair Test, which is critical of many assessment practices. Leaders such as Obama, he said, are realizing that past advocacy of high-stakes tests has "jumped the shark and gone into overkill." Recent gains could be reversed, he added. "We're not near nirvana, but there's an opportunity now."
Of the 3,800 students who were supposed to take the PSSAs last year in Lower Merion, about 200 did not. Cheryl Masterman, an activist whose two children were among the opt-outs, said her group is wooing converts by hosting coffee gatherings and screening the new anti-testing documentary Defies Measurement, which features a Lower Merion parent. Another discussion is set for March 7 at Bryn Mawr College.
Like many districts, Lower Merion has called on legislators to eliminate the Keystones and minimize other high-stakes tests.
"I think it's become a much more open conversation - it's more in the news," Masterman said. She said the Parents Across America group hopes that a larger number of opt-outs this April will put pressure on lawmakers and the state Education Department as Pennsylvania crafts its plan to comply with federal ESSA law.
State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester), who cosponsored the bill delaying the Keystones, said he has watched a surprising bipartisan consensus emerge as parents in more affluent suburban districts complain about the number of days devoted to testing, while poverty-stricken communities say they lack the money to implement the changes.
"It wasn't helping anyone," Dinniman said of the Keystone requirement. "All we were doing was stamping failure on the backs of students in impoverished areas where there weren't any resources to pass these exams."
In the city, Alison McDowell of Opt-Out Philly said her grassroots group would be ramping up efforts in the coming weeks for a big "pushback." Meanwhile, 160 people are attending United Opt Out's sold-out national meeting this weekend at International House.
McDowell noted that two years ago, 27 Philadelphia students opted out of the PSSA. Last year, about 600 refused; an additional 200 declined to take the Keystones.
"A few years ago, maybe people felt uncomfortable," she said, "but now it's more normal."
Activists in Pennsylvania admit they look with envy at the success of the opt-out movement in New Jersey, where the campaign has graduated from yard signs to billboards. There, the percentage of students not taking the primary standardized exam is second in the nation to New York.
Julia Rubin, of Princeton, a public-policy professor at Rutgers University and parent of an eighth grader, said the anti-testing group she cofounded, Save Our Schools NJ, now has 29,000 members - in defiance of threats from Gov. Christie to withhold funds from school districts with high opt-out rates.
"They're trying to use the fear and lack of information to coerce parents," she said.
She said, however, that New Jersey lawmakers were showing increasing support for the opt-out movement, enacting some curbs on testing and a measure to prevent the state from punishing districts with high refusal rates.
Gina Sharon Donahue, a Cherry Hill parent whose three children did not take last year's PARCC, said social media were rapidly raising awareness of their efforts to build on last year's 2,500 opt-outs in the district.
"I think it's catching on," she said. "There's a lot more people at least asking questions and trying to figure it out."