In 2012, Amy Roat was teaching a class of English language learners in Philadelphia. It was spring – better known in the halls of Pennsylvania’s public schools as test season.
For months, Roat had worked tirelessly to boost her students’ English proficiency in preparation for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), the state’s version of Common Core applied to students from third through eighth grade.
But on exam day, Roat saw her efforts fall drastically short. One of her students, a seventh-grader from the Dominican Republic who had recently arrived in the United States, was visibly struggling with the PSSA. He kept calling over to Roat and her assistant for help
“The questions were too complex – it was too long, you know,” Roat recalled. “He just couldn’t wrap his brain around it.”
But Roat was helpless to assist – PSSA rules prohibited her from offering any type of structural support.
“I asked (my assistant) to sit behind my desk and just stay away from him,” she said.
“She swiveled my chair around and cried. And then I cried. He couldn’t look us in the eye, and was very noncommunicative for a few weeks after this test.”
As Roat feared, the young man failed.
“At the moment, though, I betrayed him,” she lamented. “I betrayed him.”
In Roat’s mind, though, the biggest betrayal – the most egregious failure of all – was committed by the system itself, specifically the high-stakes Common Core testing, which she believes holds English language learners and students with disabilities to an unfair standard.
“It’s cruel. It’s not educational,” said Roat, who is now a middle school teacher at Feltonville School of Arts and Science in North Philadelphia. “The psychological trauma on special ed students and English language learners is tremendous. They just happen to not perform well on these tests.”
Roat had what she termed an “awakening moment” that day. And she swore to herself she would never violate another student’s trust again.
“The emphasis on standardized testing has changed what we do in school,” Roat explained. “It has taken the focus off progress and learning,” instead forcing teachers, administrators and students to spend precious class time “on how are they filling in those bubbles on those tests.”
Four years later, Roat has led an initiative against standardized testing at her school. She’s part of a growing movement in Pennsylvania – and around the country – that advocates for parents’ right to opt their children out of state testing.
Under Pennsylvania law, parents can legally opt their children out of standardized testing for religious reasons. Organizations like the Caucus of Working Educators and Pennsylvanians Restoring Education have even designed opt-out toolkits to inform and guide parents through the process.
Roat’s advocacy against standardized testing led to around 40 percent of her school’s student body opting out of tests in the 2014-15 school year. Around the same number opted out the following year. At first, despite the legal right to opt out, Roat said that her actions triggered considerable pushback, first from her school’s administration and then from her school district, to the point that she feared for her job.
“My principal was told to investigate whether or not I – or the other teachers the district believed to be involved – violated any district rules,” she said. Ultimately, Roat was found to not be in violation of any district policies.
Robin Roberts, a Philadelphia mother of three, said she saw a similar reaction in her children’s schools.
“Teachers received threats from (the) administration for giving opt-out info out,” Roberts explained. “They were explicitly told not to give out info.”
No fewer than 4,600 students opted out of Pennsylvania’s state exams in 2015 – triple the number from the year before – although still a fraction of the 774,000 who did take them. Across the United States, the number of public school students opting out has exploded. Approximately 675,000 opted out last year. New York and New Jersey are leading that charge, accounting for a combined 370,000 opt-outs.
The amount of testing children are exposed to, and the time it takes to prepare for those exams – which detracts from learning subjects outside of reading, math and science – is a source of limitless frustration for the opt-out movement and parent-educators like Roat.
Testing is “an absurd use of time,” she explained. “A lot of parents reject the Common Core for the same reason: It’s narrowing the curriculum. Art, music and social studies are being eschewed to teach reading and math. The education system we’re using is creating robots.”
FairTest, a national testing watchdog, found that U.S. public school students take an average of 110 to 115 standardized tests over the course of their education. And according to a recent poll by EdWeek, two-thirds of Americans believe that’s too much.
“Whatever people think about standardized testing in principle, they believe that that number is way too many in practice,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director at FairTest.
In response to the mounting opposition to testing, in March, Gov. Tom Wolf signed Bill 880, which puts a two-year moratorium on the use of Keystone exams – the high school equivalent of the PSSAs – as a graduation requirement. Up until last year, students who failed their Keystone exams could not graduate – even if they passed all their required coursework.
High school students graduating in 2017, 2018 or 2019 must now pass state-developed end-of-course assessments in algebra 1, biology and literature, as opposed to taking Keystones, in order to attain a diploma. Students can also meet state graduation requirements by passing an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate Exam, or a locally chosen, independently validated exam for each subject area.
“It’s a great first step in revising the graduation requirements in the commonwealth,” said Jeff Taylor, assistant superintendent in the North Hills School District outside Pittsburgh. “I feel good that they’re looking at other alternatives besides a single test to measure graduation.”
Tatiana Olmedo, a public high school guidance counselor in Philadelphia, agreed.
“I strongly support the decision by Gov. Wolf to hold off on making the Keystones a requirement for graduation and that they are investigating other things,” she said.
Many parents across the state are echoing those sentiments.
“I think that Bill 880 is on the right track for what we have to do to reclaim our education,” said Roberts, the Philadelphia mother who opted her children out of the state tests.
“Standardized testing doesn’t take into (account) the differences in our children and the differences that come with their education. There’s no way we can test kids with one single measure and expect them all to be on the same level.”
Roberts began researching the opt-out process when she realized her youngest child, Cameron, then in the third grade and facing his first PSSAs, was not receiving the same support in math and reading as her older children, primarily due to the budget cuts in Philadelphia’s public schools.
“He was being marched into the testing season without sufficient regular education and he wasn’t ready,” Roberts recalled. “Teachers and administrators hype up the tests and lay a significant amount of pressure on the kids to do well because the tests are used for so many other reasons: evaluations, school closures.”
Cameron wasn’t prepared, and if he failed, Roberts was concerned her youngest would be stigmatized.
“I decided that he was not going to take the tests because along with not being fully educated, I did not want any results to be incorporated into his self-identity,” she said.
Roberts’ eldest son, Miles, is an 11th-grader who said it felt “pretty good” to opt-out of the PSSAs in the past.
“I had high enough test scores to get into high school, and it was irrelevant to take the eighth-grade PSSAs,” said Miles, 16, who attends George Washington Carver School of Engineering and Science in Philadelphia. However, Miles, who has ambitious postsecondary hopes, had already passed his Keystones prior to Wolf’s moratorium taking effect.
Simone Roberts, 13, talks to a reporter during an opt-out demonstration while younger brother Cameron, 11, looks on. Photo by Robin Roberts
Bill 880 falls in line with a trend that’s proliferating nationwide: the possible extinction of exit exams. Twenty-seven states used to administer standardized exit exams, but that number has dipped sharply. Today, just 14 states require standardized exit exams for the 2016-17 school year. Six states – California, Georgia, Texas, Arizona, South Carolina and Alaska – have even passed legislation that retroactively grants diplomas to students who previously failed their exit exams.
Things are also shifting at a federal level. Just months before Wolf signed Bill 880, President Barack Obama passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.
“No Child Left Behind … put a huge emphasis on testing and holding schools, and kids, and teachers accountable through standardized testing,” said Jerry Oleksiak, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.
The president’s action was not unexpected: He went on record in 2015 as saying he believed too much testing “takes the joy out of teaching and learning.”
Under the ESSA, which goes into effect in the 2017-18 school year, there will be increased flexibility on federal education policy and the legislation also moves authority back to states and communities.
“A lot of decision-making is put back on the state about what kind of standardized tests you’ll give (and) the emphasis that’s put on them,” said Oleksiak.
Pennsylvania’s existing state plan expired on Aug. 1, meaning the current school year will serve as a transition year for the new framework.
Another popular criticism of standardized testing is the relationship between low test scores and poverty. Privileged students are known to score in the top percentiles, while less well-off students struggle in testing.
“If your area is more impoverished, you’re going to have a harder time passing the test,” said state Sen. Andy Dinniman, a Democrat, who co-sponsored Bill 880 along with Republican state Sen. Lloyd Smucker.
“You’re stamping failure on students, many of whom don’t even have the curriculum materials to pass the test,” Dinniman added.
The problem of standardized tests and poverty is perhaps best illustrated by what is happening in Philadelphia, where roughly 80 percent of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Inner-city poverty and the district’s recent financial woes, Dinniman said, have set kids up to fail. A number of Philadelphia’s schools, he added, lack resources such as up-to-date or proper textbooks, classroom space and certified teachers.
Many students “were being taught by uncertified biology teachers, and they didn’t even have the textbooks in the Common Core curriculum upon which they’re being tested,” said Dinniman.
The senator said he is also frustrated by the emergence of standardized testing as a multibillion-dollar industry – money he thinks should be invested in public schools and education, not tests.
“The more money we spend on testing, the less money goes to impoverished schools,” he said.
Dinniman pointed to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s three separate contracts with Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corporation, which oversees and administers online standardized testing in several states, including Pennsylvania, as well as provides tools and materials for test preparation. These contracts stretch back to 2008 and thus far have totaled more than $741 million, of which a little more than half has been paid.
Dinniman said breaking the contract with Data Recognition Corporation could save millions, while potentially putting more funding back into schools throughout Pennsylvania.
“We’ll save a heck of a lot of money that we can put into the schools for real learning, for teaching, not for this phony type of accountability,” Dinniman explained. “Accountability is important. Testing is important for remediation. These tests don’t provide it.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Education fielded questions from City & State via email, but did not answer a question about the future of the department’s contracts with Data Recognition Corporation and how that money could be better allocated. Follow-up requests were not answered, either.
While many critics of Common Core are pressing for massive overhauls to the program’s overall model, and some are even calling for the complete abolition of the PSSAs and Keystones, not everyone believes they should disappear, at least not completely.
Standardized tests are a “complete dashboard for student performance,” said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
“A standardized test score is only part of a picture that we’re trying to gain on how much schools are learning,” she added. “This is information principals want and need. They want pictures of how kids do in school.”
Bartoletti, who thinks testing has “gone overboard” on the amount of time allocated to the overall testing schedule, is also concerned that the opt-out movement is actually doing more harm than good in Pennsylvania’s schools.
“We oppose opt-out policies for students,” Bartoletti said. “We think it’s really important for kids to participate in standardized assessments because those standardized assessments really give us a complete picture on success. It is problematic when a low number of people participate in standardized tests.”
If too many students opt out, Bartoletti said, it could skew data and negatively impact a school’s ratings. Referencing a recent PDK/Gallup Poll, Bartoletti said that 59 percent of Americans oppose letting students opt out of tests.
Nathan Benefield, vice president of policy at the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based free-market think tank, also argued that standardized tests are “an important way to hold schools and teachers accountable, and to give parents information about them.”
Stripping the Keystone exams of their graduation-requirement status has been welcomed as a victory for many in Pennsylvania, but it’s a fleeting fix.
So what’s the future of standardized testing in Pennsylvania? There’s no definitive answer yet, but a recent report, authored by the Department of Education and submitted to the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, might offer some clues on how things will play out.
The report found that high school exit exams are not the “sole valid measure of mastery of standards-based core subject matter,” and that project-based assessments, offered to students who fail the Keystones twice, are “ineffective.”
“Senior leaders from the state Department of Education have visited dozens of schools across the commonwealth to meet with students, educators and others to get their input on education policies in the state, including standardized testing, graduation requirements and investing in education,” said Nicole Reigelman, the department’s press secretary.
In light of the report’s findings, the department recommended four options for students to demonstrate postsecondary readiness as far as graduation requirements go: the Keystones; an alternate assessment approved by the department; a trades-oriented exam or assessment; or demonstrating competency in subject matter through grades or assessment that’s coupled with evidence related to postsecondary plans.
“Intentional and meaningful change will take time and collaboration, but with the valuable input garnered from these visits,” Reigelman added, the Department of Education “is able to make thoughtful recommendations to policy-makers.”
“There will be options for school districts to have more flexibility with graduation requirements,” said Oleksiak, the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, who is hopeful that new legislation will allow students who potentially fail their Keystones, but who pass their coursework, to graduate. “Keystone exams might be a part of that process, but I think that there will be a flexibility … in determining whether or not students can get a diploma.”
PA Sen. Andy Dinniman – photo from senatordinniman.com
But others, like Dinniman, the Pennsylvania senator who co-sponsored Bill 880, hope that the Keystones will disappear altogether as a graduation requirement.
“I think the future of this testing is as follows: They will never go back to the Keystones for graduation,” Dinniman said.
Dinniman envisions a future where Pennsylvania’s schools shift toward implementing SATs and ACTs to replace high-stakes standardized tests, a move that he said could save millions, and one that’s already underway in seven other states.
“It makes perfect sense,” Dinniman added. “They’re already in the schools. We’re not paying for the entire testing process. You’re paying a fee, which is far less and opens up opportunities for more youngsters.”
Not everyone is so sure, though.
“Two years from now, we’ll be testing kids in Pennsylvania,” said Andrew Porter, former dean of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “Mark my words. Maybe with a different test, but it will be a similar test. You can be sure of that.”
Roat, the Philadelphia middle school teacher and opt-out advocate, is optimistic that Bill 880’s legislation removing Keystones as a graduation requirement will persist long after 2019. However, she’s convinced that if the Keystones are phased out, they will be replaced by another standardized test, which she said doesn’t solve the larger problem at hand.
“It seems as if they just want to replace (Keystones) with a different, better (standardized) test,” Roat said. “Better, really? When so many of our children are standardized, how is that good for society?”
The PSSAs may also not be good as predictors of future performance. The Dominican boy who failed his PSSA, and whom Roat felt she had betrayed, is on track to graduate from high school. Roat, who ran into her former student recently, said that seeing him all these years later – and doing well – was cathartic.
“I was so happy that he seemed to have let go of an incident that held so much significance for me,” she said. “It alleviated my guilt to a large extent, for he represents all of my students. Luckily, for him, there is a moratorium on the Keystone exams as a requirement for graduation, so because of the work of many parents and some teachers, he should have no impediment to graduation.”■