Considering Opting Out Your Child from High-Stakes Testing?

Data on teacher’s perceptions of the PSSA’s effectiveness as an indicator of student achievement from the June 2019 “Standardized Tests in Public Education” report by the PA General Assembly’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee

With the recent guidance issued from the Department of Education that says that states must give standardized tests this school year (despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the many other reasons testing should be cancelled), we’ve decided to republish this post about opting out of testing.

We will continue to update the post and resources as more information becomes available about adjustments to the processes for this school year.


Over recent years, there have been a handful of parents, district wide, who contentiously objected to the high stakes attached to the state’s standardized tests: PSSA and Keystones. In some years, there have been more organized efforts, like those in 2014-15 that lead to over 17% of families from Feltonville School of Arts and Science opting out of the PSSAs.

We fully support the right for parents to opt their children out of high stakes standardized tests. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is one of a few states that has a legal provision for parents to opt their children out of the PSSA and Keystone exams.

Standardized testing has been at the forefront of what is going wrong in public education. Initially set to identify practices that were hampering students education, the tests now are used to assign failure and blame throughout public education to students, their teachers, administrators, and schools.

It is clear that schools have been and continue to be targeted for closure and charter turnover primarily based on their test scores. It is extremely concerning that there is insufficient attention to major factors affecting education in Philadelphia: poverty, access to resources, homelessness, English language ability, special education needs, and violence.

While limited progress has been made, we still have not achieved fair funding for our public education system. After well over a decade of these standardized tests and the increasing stakes attached to them, what we know is that they are most likely to predict a student’s household income not their intellect or ability to learn.

And, these tests come at a significant financial cost. According to the June 2019 “Standardized Tests in Public Education” report by the PA General Assembly’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, the cost to PDE for standardized testing was $42.17 million in fiscal year 2017-2018.

As parents, we have the ability to create the public educational system that we want our children to experience.

We can ensure that our children have arts, music, social studies classes.

We can make inclusive insightful learning opportunities are present for our children and push back on the amounts of test prep prevalent in the months before April.

We can ensure that any testing focuses on the academic success of the student.

We can finally actively address the educational gaps that is are present but rarely closed.

We can press our elected officials and appointed school board to acknowledge that more testing does not lead to more learning.

Speaking with more parents, teachers, and educators we realized that there was a general lack of information regarding opt-out. All schools are required by law to provide their families with information on how to opt out.

Opt-Out Resources

Click here for the Education Law Center’s Opt-Out Fact Sheet, which provides a wealth of information about opting out.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education FAQ Sheet on PSSAs is usually sent home from the schools before testing begins and gives general information about the PSSA.

For more information on why and how to opt out, including our form letter templates and generator, visit our Opt Out page.

If you have questions or would like more information about standardized testing or the Opt-Out movement, please contact us at parentsunitedphila@gmail.com

Open Letter Regarding Continued Hybrid Reopening Plan Failures

Dr. William Hite, Superintendent, School District of Philadelphia
Philadelphia Board of Education
Philadelphia City Council

2/18/2021, updated 2/19/2021

Dr. Hite, Board of Education members, and Council members:

We are glad to hear that the School District of Philadelphia has pushed back the date for return to school buildings. Like the majority of parents across the district (according to district data), we do not trust that the current plan will keep our children safe.

We believe that taking the time to get all aspects of building reopening plans right, so that we can ensure everyone’s safety, is the right choice. As such, we are disturbed with the district’s leadership’s insistence in implying that members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers are being irrational or unrealistic in demanding a better plan.

In seeking to unfairly shift the blame to teachers via the union, the district continues to minimize the role and the voice of parents and caregivers across the district. We, like many other parents, have showed up over and over again sharing our questions and our concerns, but we still see evidence that we are not truly being heard. District leadership has also refused to take any responsibility for their failures in planning, collaboration, and communication. 

We would be in a very different place as a district and a community if only district leadership would take responsibility, own that their long-standing actions and inactions have lead to a severe lack of trust, recognize that additional time provides an opportunity to make improvements, and take on a real effort to learn so that they can make informed changes. Instead, we continue to hear district leaders say that, but for a few “honest mistakes,” they’ve done everything right. 

In a sequence that is painfully familiar from asbestos issues as recently as last school year, the district continues to assure everybody that the buildings are safe when there is verifiable evidence in the form of residential-grade window fans and lead-infused tape that they’re not.

The continued standoff between the PFT and the school district is frustrating, but not because it is keeping school buildings closed. It is a striking illustration of what happens when plans are made without all stakeholders, including parents, the PFT, support staff, and students, at the table. Even now, the district insists that schools will be reopening while teachers are just beginning to receive their first doses of the vaccine. Research shows that there is also the potential for children to get sick themselves and/or to spread the virus to their family members at home.

It is unacceptable that Dr. Hite and other district leaders continue to use this situation to cast blame on teachers when the PFT is, in fact, making reasonable requests focused on ensuring safety for everyone. Likewise, the PFT must demand a seat at the table from the outset of all planning processes rather than being reactive to the district’s plans, and they must demand seats alongside them for parents and students.

These plans, which are deeply flawed, impact all of our health, safety, and welfare. It’s unacceptable that district leaders continue to create situations that require the incredibly draining, intensive labor of parents and stakeholders as fact-checkers and accountability monitors, rather than proactively bringing folks together in the planning stages.

Many students and families are struggling under the weight of nearly a year of living through a pandemic, difficulties with online learning, and many other sources of hardship and trauma. 

At the same time, we know that our buildings have been and remain unsafe, and that we cannot trust district leadership to do right by us and our children.

Multiple things can be true at once.

If the district chose, it could take steps to make improvements in both of these areas simultaneously. In fact, improvements to the challenges of remote learning would have much wider impact, given that more than two thirds of students will not be returning in this first phase of hybrid learning.

We continue to demand more of district leaders, and we implore the district to reopen the buildings only when it is truly, verifiably safe.

Sincerely,

Leadership, Parents United for Public Education


Thanks for reading! While you’re here, we encourage you to share this letter, sign up for our email list, and to check out our demands for reopening and reimagining the School District of Philadelphia. We know that continued action and advocacy is the only way we will see change for our children and families.

Take Action! Contact the BoE and Council to demand full and transparent collaboration and community engagement, even after the arbitration process is over, which must include more than infrequent, surface-level surveys of parents.

Reopening and Reimagining in the School District of Philadelphia

Like so many others, we have been intensely focused on the discussion around a healthy and safe reopening of school buildings in the School District of Philadelphia for hybrid or in person learning. We wrote the following in our open letter regarding the original reopening plan:

Our district has had a couple of months to find a better way to educate Philadelphia’s students, and yet the plan that resulted from that work seems to serve very few. We deserve better. 

Months later, we have seen very little progress and many missteps that highlight the longstanding lack of trust and unwillingness of District leadership to act in ways that value community collaboration and input, and put students, families and school staff first.

We will not stand by and wait. Instead, we will demand what we know the students, families, staff, and community members deserve. These are our demands:

  1. A safe, independently vetted and community-approved plan for COVID-safe building reopening for hybrid and in-person learning that accounts for the variation among school population and facilities.
  2. Complete plans with public-facing measurable goals and information sharing on both successes and failures towards full building reopening for all students that include an equity and racial justice-focused, transparent, and collaborative re-envisioning of curriculum, instruction, and student supports.
  3. Immediate changes to district and Board of Education and School District processes and policies that allow for increased information sharing, two-way communication, and real community engagement moving forward.

Below, we describe some of the specific measures that will need to be in place for each of these larger demands to be met.

We hope that these demands will support community dialogue around what each of them could look like and what they would mean for students, families, school staff, and the wider community. As such, we’ve created a way to gather feedback and ideas and concerns and wonderings.

Please read on to find out a little bit more about each of these three demands, and to engage with us in that dialogue.

We’d also like to should out our collaborators on the webinar and many other projects, the Philadelphia Home and School Council, the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative, and Our City Our Schools, as well as the Facebook group “Parents Organized for a Better School District of Philadelphia”. This work is truly collaborative, coalition work, and we could not do it alone.

Demand #1: COVID-Safe Building Reopening

A safe, independently vetted and community-approved plan for COVID-safe building reopening for hybrid and in-person learning.

Context: The history of school buildings that harm children and staff is long in Philadelphia. Problems with lead, mold, asbestos, and heating and cooling are found in many of our schools. Buildings are often not maintained and large systems like heating and cooling have failed or are failing. COVID has brought many of these issues to everyone’s attention and has shown how there are no one-size-fits-all fixes that can make buildings safer for the return of school staff and children. Each school community needs to feel that the District understands and has a plan to address their school’s specific issues. A fan is not a solution. We need the experienced eyes of the PFT Environmental Director reviewing the plans for a safe return for each school. We must also address other issues that are critical to protecting our communities, such as decreasing community spread through vaccination, testing, and contact tracing. Every child, parent and staff member should feel confident that their school administrators have a clear, up to date, and easy to follow protocol.

Steps Forward: In order for this demand to be met, the following must be in place.

  1. Every school room that will have kids, teachers or staff in it for any purpose must have its ventilation plan and other reopening specific safety measures approved by PFT.
  2. Every school staff member who wants or needs to be vaccinated can do so before going back into the classroom.
  3. A clear COVID testing and contact tracing protocol that reflects the current best practices and up to date guidance based on new variants, and which allows for the fast release of data and information about COVID rates within and across schools.

Take Action: It is critical that parent voices are heard on these issues. Please sign up to testify at the City Council hearing “Safely Reopening Schools” on 2/17 by emailing Nick.Spiva@phila.gov or call 215-686-3420. Or share your questions and concerns with Councilperson Gym via this form. 

Share Your Thoughts: What else does this demand mean to you? What ideas do you have? Share your thoughts on this demand here (you can add your own thoughts, and also like others’ to boost ideas you agree with or want to know more about).

Demand #2: Collaborative Re-envisioning

Complete plans with public-facing measurable goals and information sharing on both successes and failures towards full building reopening for all students that include an equity and racial justice-focused, transparent, and collaborative re-envisioning of curriculum, instruction, and student supports.

Context: The School District has twice tried to reopen schools with plans that have not authentically included parent and student input, and has often hidden information about the true issues with specific school buildings and reopening. The hybrid learning plan doesn’t center the needs of our children and makes no effort to provide parents, staff and community members with an educational plan that is based on the needs of our most vulnerable students and families. Virtual learning has also highlighted long standing issues with curriculum, instruction, and over-testing. This is the moment for visionary leadership that shows that the School District and Board of Education is committed to working to end the huge differences in facilities and resources between the haves and have-nots in our Philadelphia public schools. We need radical honesty about the hard work ahead and a true, measurable commitment to shift the focus from testing and other racially biased methods of assessment to make sure every child learns in an academically rich school environment with appropriate funding and services (including small class sizes, a stable and effective leadership team, teaching staff and supports, a well-rounded curriculum, access to fresh food, safe and adequate facilities, and free transportation). 

Steps Forward: In order for this demand to be met, the following must be in place.

  1. Fully vetted and agreed upon facility safety standards that address long-standing issues such as asbestos, lead, mold, water quality, and ventilation.
  2. Detailed school-specific, long-term, incremental COVID and general facility safety plans for full capacity reopening that are developed, reviewed, and vetted in public and with input from students, families, and staff.
  3. Permanently lowered class sizes and a permanent end to leveling (both of which require a robust hiring program that should emphasize increasing the proportions of BIPOC educators).
  4. A strategic plan towards comprehensive curricula focused on the whole child at all schools that includes art, music, science, ethnic studies, physical education and health, special education, counseling, related services, and ESOL.
  5. Dramatic reductions in testing of students and usage of computer-based learning programs.
  6. Community-focused, anti-racist, and culturally responsive models for education.

Take Action:

Share Your Thoughts: What else does this demand mean to you? What ideas do you have? Share your thoughts on this demand here (you can add your own thoughts, and also like others’ to boost ideas you agree with or want to know more about).

Demand #3: True Community Engagement

Immediate changes to district and Board of Education and School District processes and policies that allow for increased information sharing, two-way communication, and real community engagement moving forward.

Context: With a locally controlled Board of Education, we expected more input from the community compared to years of the School Reform Commission silencing of student, parent, staff and community voices. Instead, we’ve seen community engagement and input become little more than buzzwords. In recent months, the Board, working behind closed doors, cut speakers’ time from three to two minutes and drastically limited the number of speakers at every meeting. Earlier this year, Board President Wilkerson warned speakers that if they attempted to speak on any topic other than the one designated on their sign-up form, she would have their mics cut off. This silencing of community voices will not stand. It is illegal, and it makes a mockery of the Boards new “Goals and Guardrails” where they pretend to care about input but instead create ways to silence the community.

Steps Forward: In order for this demand to be met, the following must be in place.

  1. A substantive and robust Environmental Advisory Committee that reports to the Board and the City and is tasked with ensuring ongoing evaluation, assessment mitigation strategies, best practices for planning, and priority setting to improve facilities and address environmental conditions across all schools in an equitable way.
  2. Proper planning for the relocation of students for asbestos/ lead remediation, contingency plans for delays/construction problems, and real-time progress monitoring dashboard for capital projects that includes access to up-to-date facility safety reports, work orders for major repairs, and documentation of remediation of hazardous materials.
  3. Updated Facility Condition Assessments, paired with detailed plans to address the issues within them that provided for each school and presented to the school community for feedback and input.
  4. Real engagement with the community including the removal of the new two minute time limit and speaker cap for Board of Education meetings. 
  5. Improved whistleblower protections for parents, staff and students who speak out, and a clear process for students, families, and staff to report problems and concerns with school administrators and district leaders.

Take Action: 

Share Your Thoughts: What else does this demand mean to you? What ideas do you have? Share your thoughts on this demand here (you can add your own thoughts, and also like others’ to boost ideas you agree with or want to know more about).

COVID Reopening and Building Safety Questions

During our recent set of webinars about Philadelphia schools’ facility conditions and safety, we had the opportunity to share information and hear questions from many caregivers and educators. (View a video of the Facebook Live recording of the webinar.)

Folks continue to be very concerned about long-term issues such as lead, asbestos, mold, and water quality, while also facing many unanswered immediate questions about safety precautions for reopening buildings in the midst of COVID-19.

Unfortunately, while we were able to gather many of these questions, we ultimately cannot answer most of them. They should be answered, but by district leadership, in public.

We’ve compiled a list below that summarizes the questions that were asked during our webinars. We encourage caregivers to reach out to city council and the school board to continue pushing for answers. It is critical that parent voices are heard!

In addition, please sign up to testify at the City Council hearing “Safely Reopening Schools” on 2/17/21 by emailing Nick.Spiva@phila.gov or calling 215-686-3420. You can also share your questions and concerns about the district’s current hybrid re-opening plan with Councilperson Gym via this form. 

The questions below are lightly edited for clarity and to combine/ remove duplicate topics. They were submitted via the Q&A function during the webinars and do not necessarily reflect the questions or priorities of Parents United as an organization.

Questions About General Facility Safety

  • What is the status of capital improvements as it pertains to the HVAC systems and asbestos mitigation? Has the Philadelphia School District fully addressed each building regarding the asbestos?
  • There is a lot of talk federally about funding coming to school districts. Is there any information about how the district might plan to use prospective funding? (Given the past issues with not properly addressing facility issues.)
  • Has the Philadelphia School District provided all supplies and repairs needed for each school?
  • Why isn’t the boiler room and attics in schools being tested and what can we do to demand that these rooms be tested for asbestos, mold, and lead? What about the analysis of the areas concealed by drop ceiling tiles – present in many schools?
  • SDP is about to get a lot of money from the most recent COVID funding. How can we be sure it is spent on the right things when it comes to environmental and health safety issues? Do you feel federal intervention may be warranted to help fund and rebuild in our district due to our particular circumstances?
  • To be clear, I want my child to go back to school IF the building is healthy. What I am hearing is that our schools are very unhealthy (and probably have been for a while). Are others on this call feeling the same way?

General Reopening Plan Questions (Non-Ventilation)

  • What is the safest place for k-2 students to eat lunch (and maybe breakfast) – in the classrooms or rotating through the cafeteria? Could meals be held outside at schools where that is possible?
  • Why are the teachers and other staff not being given the choice of getting vaccinated before they return to an unsafe environment? Is there any chance that our teachers will be offered a first vaccination prior to Feb 22?
  • My kid’s Kindergarten teacher told us today that there may be no recess, for fear of children touching playground equipment that is ‘contaminated.’ This is working off of data from almost a year ago that has been disproven. Any word on this?
  • How much safer would outdoor classrooms/ being outside be even in non-ideal weather? Would it significantly reduce risk if they limited their time indoors with outside time in between?
  • Water fountains are closed – how will the children remain hydrated? What if they forget a water bottle?
  • En Israel solamente maestros y personal vacunado con la primera y segunda dosis están permitidos ir a colegio y dar clases en persona. También los alumnos mayores de 16 años deben estar vacunados con las 2 dosis antes de venir al colegio a tomar clases en persona. Porque no tomamos ese ejemplo?Translation via Google Translate: “In Israel only teachers and staff vaccinated with the first and second doses are allowed to go to school and teach in person. Also, students over 16 years of age must be vaccinated with the 2 doses before coming to school to take classes in person. Why don’t we take that example?”
  • Has SDP considered alternate sites such as Liacouras center or buildings not in use due to Covid that are larger and newer?
  • What does the district know about testing staff and students regularly to help mitigate the spread of covid in 2021?
  • Who will be liable if anyone, staff, student, administrator, etc., gets COVID while in a building with poor ventilation or improperly installed ventilation?
  • What kind of safety measures are being put in place for art and music teachers who interact with all the classrooms and in a school? I understand that this kind of plan would violate the “pod” concept of separate students in classrooms.
  • Knowing that this pandemic may not have a precise “end,” what would you recommend in terms of getting kids back into class? Kids truly are suffering. How can we get kids actually BACK before the end of this school year?
  • What are the data on transmission/ infection rates in K12 schools who have been conducting in-person or hybrid teaching (obviously outside SDP)? Is there data publicly available for COVID incidence and transmission in schools in Philadelphia county that have had in person schooling since Sept?
  • To be clear, when you talk about “safe enough” conditions for a reopening, this doesn’t mean there isn’t still a transmission risk, right? What is the transmission risk in the kind of minimal safe conditions you were talking about?
  • Will there be any allotted funds to the school district for outside disinfection and sanitizing services such as electrostatic spraying?
  • There seems to be a disagreement about the definition of “substantial” transmission rate. Would you clarify what you consider the acceptable threshold for cases/100,000 and test positivity rate is?

General Ventilation Questions

  • Do individually purchased (expensive) room Air Purifiers do any good to mitigate viral load in a room? In other words, is it worth a teacher purchasing this on their own??
  • If a school had a non-working house fan what would be a reasonable fix to bring the ventilation up to a modern standard? do they need to be replaced with a different system or repaired?
  • Is there any information about the bathrooms? None of our bathrooms were tested because they have no univents and no windows, so no air circulation. Those bathrooms shouldn’t even be used now.
  • While ventilation is crucial, is it becoming sensationalized, almost a distraction (from other mitigation efforts)?
  • When will air quality retesting be completed?
  • Many school nurses’ offices are either not listed on the ventilation reports or have zero occupancy. There seem to be quite a few that have no windows. What is the next step?
  • Would it be a better use of limited resources for the SDP to purchase air purifiers for classrooms in schools without effective ventilation instead of fans and the planned investment in additional custodial staff for daily “deep cleaning”?
  • Our school is not slated for window fans (PDF is appended with ABR, not WFC) but almost every single room says that either OA dampers not working, covered with plywood, not running or not operational. Is there no fresh air but it is leaky enough for occupancy shown?

Questions About the Window Fans

  • On social media, several parents have quoted health guidelines that say fans should be used for exhaust/exchange—not to blow air in (as it may spread COVID particles to people in the room). Is this accurate, and is this a concern? Will the fans be blowing in or drawing air out of the room?
  • How close to the window fan should the closest children sit or be oriented?
  • Fans and open windows in will likely cause the classroom to be very cold in the winter. How is this supposed to be acceptable? What about the policy of turning the heating system off in the afternoon and then turning it on again in the morning?
  • My husband is a licensed electrician and electrical inspector, from what he is seeing the fans being installed are UL listed for residential use only and are in violation of article 110.3b of the national electrical code, can you confirm this?
  • My questions is the window fans that the district is putting in is for windows that go up and down/ push out?
  • How many “changes of air” do one of those window unit fans cause per hour in a typical classroom?
  • Has the district has denied [PFT experts] the ability to check the fans?
  • How will the air in rooms be filtered with window fans? Don’t you need filters to filter out CoVid?
  • Are the window fan units being proposed as a permanent solution?
  • Should schools be closed for rain and snow? My school has fans (and I have heard they are not designed for use in that kind of weather).

Parents United Response to the SDP Reopening Plan

We, like so many, are spending a lot of our time thinking about reopening schools safely. We are still trying to process last week’s Board of Education meeting in which over a hundred parents, students, and staff spoke about the need for a consciously safe return to education, only to be met with what appeared to be a coordinated plan to dismiss their concerns and delay Board action. There are clearly significant questions about the district’s ability to provide an adequate education and minimize COVID-19 exposure risk.

Parents and students have reason to be leery of the district’s reopening plan; the district’s trust problem with its stakeholders is not new. The School District of Philadelphia has a history of decision-making that ignores the input of families and educators while putting students and educators at risk. It is not hyperbole to say that people have died and will die due to the conditions in our schools.

Continue reading “Parents United Response to the SDP Reopening Plan”