Today, our partners at the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools helped sponsor a City Council hearing on high stakes testing. A capacity crowd turned out for the hearings, which were co-sponsored by Councilman Mark Squilla and Council Education Committee Chair Jannie Blackwell. Parents United leader Robin Roberts spoke on behalf of parents everywhere in this outstanding testimony.
I want to thank you Councilman Squilla and Councilwoman Blackwell for inviting me today to share some of my experience and knowledge on this subject. I hope today is a first step in gaining some answers and providing some context and clarity to this discussion. Together, we can see all of our students get the education that will allow them the opportunity to prosper and achieve their dreams and goals.
I am a product of strong public schools. I participated in honors classes, foreign languages, played varsity sports throughout the year, and played in the school band and orchestra. I was safe, secure and well cared for. We had a state wide test. It lasted a day and was not a big deal. My K-12 experience prepared me academically, socially, emotionally for college where I have earned two Master and a Doctor degree.
Now, I am the mother of three children who are in the School District of Philadelphia.
By the end of today, you will have heard many people who know more about the statistics, metrics, and global impacts of this testing environment. I believe that there needs way to assess the quality, efficacy, and level of education that students are receiving. And, a way for assisting students when the information has being missed without being punitive. That process needs to be evidence based and have reliable and valid standards.
I’d like to spend this time to present why, last year, we chose to refuse the PSSA/ Keystone for our children.
“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.”
The educational environment was dismal in Philadelphia. More budget shortfalls leading to more cuts to essential personnel, more cuts to valued programs, less concern about the safety, health, and welfare of our students.
This was also the 3rd grade year for my son Cameron. Cameron is a bright, curious, active child. He has a megawatt smile, loves music & arts, and school. He had a wonderful creative teacher. He was surrounded by teachers who were experienced, knowledgeable, and observant of their students. Cameron, like my older two children received additional support in the lower school. The programs for my older two children were supported by the district. Both of them are now high level students who are confident problem solvers. Cameron’s support had been more sporadic due to staffing and budget cuts.
We were aware that the PSSA in the Spring and we were concerned that he may not be ready to test. We actively tried to find a reason to participate.
In the past years, schools that did not meet AYP (adequate yearly progress) received additional supports (parents’ ombudsman and an additional guidance counselor). Last year, there were no additional supports for schools, like ours, that did not meet the adequate growth requirement. Students do not receive any additional instruction to ensure that they learn what was missed. What does happen is that kids see their PSSA scores as a measure of their academic achievement and many internalize their score. What happens to the child who scores say that they are less than proficient? What do they begin to think about their achievement? What does it do to their self-esteem and confidence? We are talking about 8 and 9 year olds. My son is just like tens of thousands of other children in Philadelphia’s public schools. They are bright and curious and active. They want to achieve, learn, to be smart. They want to play, and laugh, and experiment, and explore. Why does the district keep our students from learning as optimally as possible?
Meanwhile, this test is a heavily weighted metric used to determine a school’s success and now a teacher’s strength. There is little acknowledgment of the exploding class sizes or the lack of personnel in our school buildings. No one seems to talk about the very real effects of poverty, or special education needs, English language learners. No one talks about the level of homelessness, food insecurity, violence, stress, or anxiety that affects the test scores and education as a whole. Yet, the scores are used as ammunition to assign school failure, student failure, teacher failure.
Knowing what I know now and seeing the awful impact of testing used undermine quality schools, erase public schools from struggling neighborhoods, and lead children to a desolate future, I could not continue to have our family support this inhuman and uneducational practice.
In the days leading 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.
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 6 days for 3rd grade, nine 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.
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. We picked up the kids at 9 am and brought them back at 11:30am. At home, they worked on math, reading, their school projects, researched science fair experiments, 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 students 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 the entire month instead of testing. There was no reason to have them attach any bit of self-esteem or confidence to this score. 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.
Robin Roberts is the mother of three children in the public schools, one at Carver High School of Engineering and Sciences and two at C.W. Henry Elementary School. She is the past president of the C.W. Henry Parent Teacher Association and is a member of the Opt Out Philly group opting out of testing.