Time, money, learning: The PSSAs strike out every time


“We spend millions of dollars in a broke school district on testing that could and should be prioritized for providing basic safety in our schools, quality personnel and supplies, extracurricular activities, art, music; science kits and lab facilities, and novel cultural projects and programs.”

Robin Roberts is the mother of three children in the Philadelphia public schools and past president of the C.W. Henry Elementary Home and School Association. She is a frequent spokesperson for Parents United on issues of school funding and supporting the opt-out movement against high stakes testing.

It was an honor to appear on Radio Times and speak about high-stakes standardized testing. In preparing for the show, I used a lot of information that had helped me to decide to opt out of the PSSA (Pennsylvania State Standardized Assessment) test for my own children. What I realized is that 15 minutes was not enough time to fully speak to the issue. Here’s what I wanted to say if more time was permitted.

I am not against all standardized testing. I feel that there needs to be a standard that ensures that kids in the U.S. have education equality. However, the PSSA is a poorly constructed instrument that is not reliably or validity tested. It has predetermined failure rates of 35-45% even before the test begins. The writing assessments are being scored by temporary workers who respond to newspaper classified ads and are paid per test. They are not experts and are given only one metric to grade the test. There is no way that a student will perform well if the identical metric is not written. There is no room for original thought of expression. There is no time for students to develop their message by re-writing the response. Their first draft is the final. Is this how we want our children to learn, by using only a template and learning that there’s only one way to do this? After all that, by the time teachers receive any feedback/data from the tests, that class is in the next grade and teachers have another unique group of students. It is impossible to effect any positive change with this information.

The PSSA do not take into account the very real challenges of poverty that as many as 80% of our students face. Students come to school with additional stress, hunger, unmet basic needs, and violence due to poverty. This test does not address the needs of English Language Learners who must take the tests in English without interpretation services. Students with special education needs may not have their IEPs followed and are expected to perform on grade level with their same age peers. The PSSAs are extraordinarily harmful to these student groups.

Why has Pennsylvania continued to adopt this as the sole standard to demonstrate student achievement?

There are better tests that are actually reliably and validity tested – the WIAT III is one that has been highly recommended as a nationally normed test.

Nevertheless, district officials, lawmakers, school boards (or the state appointed School Reform Commission in Philadelphia) use these test scores to make real decisions about what schools will stay open and which will close or be turned over to private operators. Just this month, the District surprised two school communities – Munoz Marin and Steel Elementary – with the announcement that their schools were targeted for conversion to charter based solely on their test scores and their geographic proximity to charter operators.

These test scores are tied to school funding – but not in the way you think they should be.

In the last three years, our school, C.W. Henry, did not make AYP (average yearly progress). The first time, our school received additional resources: a parent ombudsman and second counselor to help students make the scores on the next PSSA. Last year, we missed the mark and received no additional resources. In fact, no schools that made AYP received additional resources. The District imposed a “Doomsday” budget on every single school that stripped out essential personnel everywhere. District schools are being set up to fail. The scores are used as ammunition to assign school failure, to schedule schools for closure or for charter turnover. The best schools did not receive additional funding for making AYP, so why are we taking it?

Our schools are being starved of resources from our city and state governments. Look at what’s happened to Henry in just the past few years of high stakes testing. In FY2011, before Gov. Corbett came into office, Henry had 30 teachers, a full time counselor, a full time librarian, a full time nurse, and a full-time Dean of Students. Today (FY2014) Henry has:

  • 28 teachers even though we’ve added two new classrooms of students;
  • an itinerant counselor;
  • a 2 day a week nurse;
  • a part-time Dean of Students;
  • no librarian ; and
  • our library was turned into the lunch room

The latest use of the PSSA is now to tie the tests to teacher evaluations. These attachments serve no real purpose in creating a base for great schools. At Henry, we are fortunate to have experienced, engaged, dedicated teachers in our children’s classrooms. Ms. Lee is an excellent experienced teacher who nurtures and challenges her students to achieve a high standard. Ms. Cantarini teaches English using project based methods that make her students think critically. Mr. Wright is a true innovator when it comes to teaching math. He challenges his students to do more than solve problems. There is no place for a poorly assessed test score to determine our teachers’ effectiveness as educators.

It does, however, make it appear that the only important subjects are the ones that are on the test. Art, dance, music, band, language, social studies, history are all important to a child’s educational development, but they are not tested. They are also not valued in this District as a result.

With all of this research, the main reason our family decided to opt out of the PSSAs is because of our children. I did not want any emotion or feeling of self-worth, confidence, or self-esteem to come from this test score. They are much more than a hash mark on paper even though my son and daughter have both taken the test in the past and have done very well. In fact, they were a bit disappointed when I told them that they were not going to take it.

My daughter said that she had “practiced so long for it” – which brings up my next point, the amount of time dedicated to the PSSA. Every parent knows there is a significant amount of “test prep.” I have to say significant because no one can tell me exactly how much time goes into prep. I look at my children’s homework and they all say PSSA readiness or PSSA writing prompt or PSSA math response. Both my 5th and 3rd grader had many PSSA worksheets.

Don’t forget this is in addition to the many interim tests associated with the PSSA that public school children are subjected to: benchmarks and predictives, which occur frequently throughout the year. They are even being subjected to field testing, which are tests solely for the financial benefit of test makers that have zero impact on the overall test score. Field tests are designed specifically to formulate the product for the testing corporations. Why are our students using instructional time to test a corporate product? When did we as parents sign off on allowing this level of access to our children?

Looking at the PSSA specifically, I was astonished with the amount of time dedicated to administering the test. My children were due to be tested for six days for 3rd grade, nine days for 5th grade and eleven days for 8th grade. I recall that between high school and graduate school, I took the ACT, GRE, my professional boards, and GMAT. I tested 16 hours in 12 years to gain higher education and a career. It seems unconscionable that students are tested between 12 -25 hours a year without a real purpose.

In the days leading up to and during testing, our school looked very different. Everything had to be taken down or covered up. Signs, award notices, bulletin boards, bookshelves, in classrooms and in hallways were covered. Signs that highlighted cooperation and respect, posters that were 12’ high on the wall needed to be covered or removed. The only visible signs were the ones identifying the bathrooms and room numbers. Our school looked like a prison.

When parents asked about this, we were told that there could be nothing that was remotely motivational for the students. What?!? How is this right?

I was deeply disturbed by the morning announcements as they were re-enacted by my daughter and her friends that featured an overly enthusiastic speaker who for months told them to have a “great day of testing.” It was reminiscent of schools that hold pep rallies or make up chants, raps and songs about doing well on this test.

Knowing what I know now and seeing the awful impact of tests undermine quality schools and erase public schools from struggling neighborhoods, I could not continue to have our family support this inhuman and uneducational practice.

I decided that there was so much else for them to do than spend time on this test. I sent the superintendent my letters exercising my right to opt out of the test. I picked up my kids at 9 am and brought them back at 11:30am. At home, they worked on math and reading, researched science fair projects, and did critical thinking and logic work. We went on trips to the Morris Arboretum and Franklin Institute. They also completed a rather complicated art project. It was time very well spent. It was interesting that when they returned back to school, most of the rest of the day was spent watching movies and having snacks so the other students who had taken the test could unwind from the stress. Only a few teachers were teaching in the afternoon. This isn’t just at Henry. It’s what I’ve seen and heard from many schools during PSSA testing. It’s a colossal amount of lost school time – even beyond the two to three hours dedicated for testing in the morning.

We spend millions of dollars in a broke school district on testing that could and should be prioritized for providing: basic safety in our schools, quality personnel and supplies, extracurricular activities – sports and clubs, art, music; science kits and lab facilities, and novel cultural projects and programs. In essence, we are opting out of creating the stimulating, nurturing learning environment that all students should have access to and parents and teachers strive to develop.

I am glad that my children had the opportunity to learn and progress in their education this entire month instead of testing. I look forward to more conversations about the role and prominence of standardized testing in our public schools. I think every parent should give serious thought about the degree of testing in school and begin to ask questions about a practice that has done harm, instead of good, to our children, our schools and our belief in learning.

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Robin Roberts is a member of the Parents United leadership collective.