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Philly schools inform parents on testing 'opt-out'

Spurred by parents and educators, the district is helping parents understand their right to excuse their children from testing.

Testing critics spur the school district to send home packets about how parents can opt their children out of assessments.
Testing critics spur the school district to send home packets about how parents can opt their children out of assessments.Read moreShutterstock

SPURRED BY a local push from parents and educators, the Philadelphia School District is giving parents new information about their right to excuse their children from standardized testing.

The district earlier this month sent home information regarding the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, which students in third to eighth grade will take next month. The packet includes frequently asked questions, which districts are required to provide under state law, along with a letter signed by the school principal telling families where to find information on opting out.

According to the information from the state Department of Education, if after reviewing the test parents find it to be "in conflict with their religious belief and wish their student(s) to be excused from the test," they must provide a written request "that states the objection to the Superintendent or Chief Academic Officer."

Recently, there has been growing opposition nationally and locally to "high-stakes testing," as critics say results are unfairly used to label schools and students as failing, ignoring factors such as poverty. Last year, about 30 students opted out in the Philadelphia School District, said spokesman Fernando Gallard. That number is expected to rise this year.

"We are anticipating an increase in the numbers this year because of the focus on this issue," he said of students being excused from the exams.

Locally, testing critics say that although the information distributed by the district is a step in the right direction, it is not enough.

"It doesn't even use the word 'opt out,' " teacher Kelley Collings said of the FAQs from the state. Collings, a veteran teacher at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Caucus of Working Educators, part of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and other Feltonville teachers made news earlier this year when the district launched an investigation into their distributing of unauthorized information to parents about their testing rights.

Collings questioned why the letter was sent home with students rather than mailed, and why parents must review the test when some have already sent in opt-out requests.

"It's a ridiculous bureaucratic hoop to jump through," Collings said.

The section of the Pennsylvania School Code that governs the testing, however, seems to be open to interpretation. Section 4.4 says parents have the right to have their children "excused from specific instruction that conflicts with their religious beliefs, upon receipt of a written request." It also gives parents the right to "review the state assessment" to determine whether it conflicts with their religious beliefs.

David Lapp, an attorney with the Education Law Center, said that part of the code was added only recently and has not yet been interpreted by a court.

According to Collings, 115 parents at Feltonville had sent opt-out requests as of Friday (only one Feltonville student opted out last school year). Those parents will have to make an appointment to review the assessment and then resubmit a request, Gallard said.

Gallard said that the district will not know the exact number of students opting out this year until testing begins, and that parents can opt out any time before the final test.

Opponents of testing have also raised concerns about how students opting out could negatively affect a school's results, which are partly used to evaluate teachers and schools overall. Gallard said students withdrawing from testing should not hugely affect those evaluations.

"The tool that we use is [the School Progress Report], which takes into consideration much more than just a test, and that's the purpose," he said.