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As Students Undergo PSSA Testing, Some Parents Advocate Opting Out

It’s April, and for many school children in Pennsylvania, that means it’s time for tests.

The Pennsylvania Systems of School Assessment (PSSA) is an annual standards-based test. Students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11 are assessed in reading and math. Grades 5, 8 and 11 are assessed in writing, and grades 4, 8 and 11 are assessed in science.

The tests have no bearing on students’ grades, and some parents are questioning the need for the PSSA.

“I don’t think a 9-year-old child should bear the stress of whether or not a school is going to get a certain kind of rating from the federal government,” said Kathy M. Newman, associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.

Newman is opting out of PSSA testing for her son, who attends Pittsburgh Linden, a K-5 magnet school in Point Breeze. She said the stress on him and the family is too great.

“I don’t object to all testing,”  Newman said. “What I object to is what is now called the high-stakes test, where the stakes are incredibly high for the school, in some cases the teacher, and by extension the students.”

Parents can opt their children out of the PSSA on religious grounds.

The issue over testing has been playing out in letters to the editor in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In one, public education activist Jessie Ramey wrote, “These tests have taken away class time, decreased actual learning, drastically narrowed the curriculum and fostered a plague of cheating scandals because the stakes are so high. Enough is enough. Parents are opting their children out as a brave act of civil disobedience. This is about equity and social justice for our poorest students.”

Newman agreed.

“I really see this kind of high-stakes testing, piled on with more standardized testing, is starting to radically narrow the curriculum we’re seeing in even some of our best public schools,” she said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education is standing behind the PSSA, which has been administered in the state for nearly 20 years.

“It serves as a benchmark of how students are performing across the state against the state’s academic standards,” said Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller. “It also measures how schools are educating students.”

Eller disagreed that the test leads to narrowed curriculum and said the content in the tests is material students need to know to move forward. Eller also said poor schools are not adversely affected by lower test scores.

“Quite frankly schools that are not achieving greatly, or are struggling academically, they sometimes become eligible for additional funding,” he said.

Those choosing to opt their children out disagreed, saying the effects of the PSSA include school closures in poorer neighborhoods and public schools losing out to private, charter organizations.

Eller said the PSSA is about accountability: ensuring that parents, students, educators, taxpayers, and policymakers know the state of Pennsylvania’s schools. The PSSAs are currently being administered and testing take place on days through early May.

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