STUDENTS, TEACHERS and parents deserve to savor the exciting possibilities of a new school year without the dark shadow of standardized testing hanging over their heads. Labeling nearly half the students in the state "failures" during the first weeks of school only discourages children from seeing themselves as capable, curious, engaged learners. What's surprising is not that nearly 50 percent of Pennsylvania students "failed" the new PSSAs, but that the percentage of failure wasn't even higher. In states where "rigorous" standardized tests aligned to the Common Core have been implemented - including New York, Washington and Connecticut - failure rates of around 70 percent have become routine.
Local administrators will feel pressured to boost PSSA and Keystone results that were manufactured via manipulated cut scores, questions on complex texts that sometimes required students to select multiple correct or incorrect answers, and questions covering content that may not have matched the curriculum that was being taught. Many districts will be expected to achieve improvements under austerity budgets caused by ongoing underfunding by the state. At the same time, Gov. Wolf's proposed budget allots $58.3 million for administering and grading state assessments, the same amount allocated by Gov. Corbett last year.
Nontested subjects like social studies, art, music and foreign languages become more vulnerable as additional minutes for test-prep and benchmarks are demanded. Lower grades, where testing must be done one-on-one, could see a significant loss of instructional time to interim testing. A review of the School District of Philadelphia assessment calendar for 2015-16 shows that testing will interrupt many days of teaching and learning at all grade levels. With so many standardized tests queued up, will children still have time for recess? All this bubble-filling would be enough to overwhelm an average student, but imagine you're among the thousands of students in the state whose primary language is not English, who have an Individualized Education Plan, or who experience test-taking anxiety. For them, these tests are traumatic.
School and teacher evaluations are now tied almost exclusively to "growing" test scores on assessments that have been engineered to ensure students do worse. Members of the Pennsylvania School Board Association expressed reservations about new PSSA cut scores this summer, noting they had serious concerns about using the results for accountability purposes. Child-centered, inquiry-based learning has gradually become the domain of private schools whose freedom from state-mandated testing is increasingly touted in advertising campaigns.
Many Pennsylvanians have come to realize one-size-fits-all, high-stakes assessments that cannot be reviewed by parents, teachers or administrators, and are graded by noneducators, should not hold such considerable power over the futures of our children. In many states the implementation of new online testing platforms has had disastrous results. Why should taxpayer funds continue to pad the bottom line of corporations when students in underfunded districts desperately need reduced class sizes and school libraries, things that actually improve student outcomes? Even superintendents in well-funded districts like the West Chester Area School District are finding it fiscally draining to manage remediation for Keystone Exams.
Seeds for the opt-out movement were sown last year in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Parents are starting to realize something is very, very wrong - not with their child, or their child's teacher, or their child's school, but with a testing industry that profits when children are "failing." Proponents of market-based reforms use test scores to rank and sort school "portfolios." When organizations like the Philadelphia School Partnership want districts to "dump the losers," test scores are their tools of choice.
Real education is not about high-performing seats. Our children are neither test scores nor data points. They are individuals. Standardized tests don't create engaged citizens or contributing members of society. Instead, they create profits for testing companies, those who sell technology required for online testing, and those who develop test prep and test remediation products. Parents have the legal right to opt their children out of standardized testing. If done in sufficiently high numbers, we can begin to return our schools to places of creative teaching and learning.