Last month, Jo-Ann Rogan started noticing a big change in her 9-year-old son, Ryan.
“As the PSSAs came closer, he was becoming extremely anxious and stressed,” Rogan said. “They were sending home practice packets, and it was just getting worse and worse.”
So Rogan joined the small but increasingly visible group of Pennsylvania parents who have decided to opt their children out of taking high-stakes state standardized tests.
“I didn’t think the test was worth my child’s mental health,” she said.
On Tuesday, tens of thousands of Philadelphia children sat down for the first day of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams. The tests, which will run through the end of the month, are given each spring to every student in the state in grades three through eight.
The stakes are high — results are used to determine if schools and districts are meeting federally mandated performance targets. Consistently poor showings can result in a school being closed, converted to a charter, or receiving other interventions.
The result, say critics, has been a rapidly increasing emphasis on preparing students for the tests at the expense of rich educational experiences such as art and music, as well as a rush to label schools as “failing.”
To protest, some activists are urging parents to seek to exempt their children from exams, which is allowable in Pennsylvania for religious reasons.
“People are finally kicking back and saying, ‘This is not the type of education I want for my children,'” said Tim Slekar, an education professor at Penn State-Altoona and the co-founder of United Opt Out.
The group helps parents, including Jo-Ann Rogan, go through the process of filing the paperwork necessary to have their children exempted from state tests.
Low numbers, but lots of attention
The numbers in Pennsylvania remain low; last year, just 16 students in Philadelphia and 260 statewide opted out of the PSSA.
But attention to the issue has been growing.
Last month, parent Kathy Newman wrote in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about why she opted her 9-year-old son out of the PSSA. The piece struck a nerve, prompting a wave of media stories and renewed focus on the impact that tests such as the PSSA have on schools.
Press secretary Tim Eller said the Pennsylvania Department of Education has taken notice. But Eller said the overall numbers of parents opting out aren’t nearly enough to impact test participation rates, a key part of how schools and districts are evaluated under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
“Obviously, with the attention that the current movement, if you will, is grabbing, we do expect to see an increase of people opting their students out,” he said. “But I don’t believe it will be at the level that will jeopardize their ability to meet the yearly benchmarks.”
Personal and political
Rogan’s two sons attend Cook-Wissahickon Elementary in Philadelphia’s Roxborough neighborhood.
Overall, said Rogan, she loves the school.
But like schools everywhere, she said, Cook-Wissahickon has little choice but to place a tremendous emphasis on the PSSAs. In recent weeks, Rogan said, that has meant tremendous hype at the school and a barrage of test prep packets sent home with students.
The combination was too much for Ryan, who has multiple learning disabilities and suffers from ADHD.
“He was very frustrated, very fearful,” said Rogan. “He acted like he had a really big burden.”
In addition to concern for her son, Rogan said she also sees the emphasis on standardized testing as a larger political issue.
“I don’t think it’s a positive for the school, I don’t think it’s a positive for the teachers, and I don’t think it’s a positive for the students,” said Rogan.
“There’s no joy in [school] anymore.”
Eller of PDE downplayed such criticism, saying the exam has been administered for two decades and is just one of several tools used to gauge student learning.
“The PSSAs give a statewide perspective on public education in general,” said Eller. “The state has employed these to ensure that the money invested into the public education system is used effectively and efficiently.”
‘A weight lifted’
After conducting some initial research on her own, Rogan reached out to advocacy groups including United Opt Out and Parents United for Public Education.
Then she wrote a letter to Cook-Wissahickon principal Karen Thomas, opting Ryan out of the PSSAs.
After she made her decision, said Rogan, it was like a weight was lifted from her son’s shoulders.
Rogan says Ryan thanked her, confiding that he was afraid of taking the exam.
“I cried, of course. I gave him a big hug,” she said.
“I don’t think I’m going to regret this at all.”
This story was reported through a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.