Friday, March 15, 2013

Awesome Opt-out Letter


Dear Dr. Lane,
Pursuant to Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4 (d)(5) I am hereby exercising my right as a parent to have my child excused from any State standardized testing because of religious and philosophical beliefs.
During the time when other students are taking State standardized PSSA tests (including make-ups), I would like my child, Ayden Harbin, to be provided with real learning opportunities at his school during test time (I have my clearances and would be willing to volunteer for this at Liberty). Or, if you would prefer, I could keep Ayden at home.
Dr. Lane, I am not required by law to explain my reasons for opting out. But this decision, to participate in civil disobedience, comes after much research and reflection so I will explain my thoughts in detail. I’ve chosen to copy the members of the Board of Directors and my Principal at Liberty to inform them of my decision. (In addition, my principal was directed by her superiors to tell parents that a copy must also be sent to Lisa Augustin and Tina Still, employees in the PPS Assessment Department. I have copied them here even though Chapter 4.4 clearly states that parents must send a written request to the Superintendent only. Please instruct your staff to correct this mistake.)
My philosophy about education is based on the simple belief in social justice and human rights. I believe every child has the right to an education filled with rich learning experiences that encourage creativity, critical thinking, taking risks, making mistakes and having independent thought. High-stakes standardized testing like the PSSA exam is not consistent with these beliefs and consequently result in the following:
The PSSA has high-stakes for students and schools. Pittsburgh Public Schools has made and will continue to make decisions to close schools based on the results of this test. Therefore, the stakes are the highest for schools that already suffer from the inequities in our schools; high teacher and principal turnover, concentrations of students living in poverty, inadequate resources and institutionalized racism.
The PSSA has high-stakes for teachers, and soon, principals. Test-based teacher and principal evaluation systems are gaining popularity as evidenced by current state legislation. (Act 82 of 2012) Unfortunately, there is no research available to prove these evaluation systems work to improve student learning. There is evidence though that the reliance on high-stakes testing, for the purpose of evaluating teachers, has caused a narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the test and an increase in cheating. Additionally, testing companies have admitted that these tests were not developed for the purpose of evaluation and should not be used in that way.
High-stakes tests are not a diagnostic assessment of student learning. I am not against all assessments. I do understand that teachers need ways to assess if students understand what has been taught. The PSSA exam is not this kind of assessment. In fact, results from the PSSA exam are not available to teachers until the next school year. Therefore, high-stakes standardized tests have no value to the teacher to assess student learning.
High-stakes tests cause student fear, anxiety and loss of confidence. In my home, we place a value on learning and the love of learning. We encourage our kids to learn from making mistakes. You can understand why I would be upset when my son in 2nd grade adamantly refused to answer a homework question (with 2 possible answers) because he was afraid he would get the wrong answer.
I was also upset to learn from a science teacher that her students, when asked to write a hypothesis, hesitated to write it until they knew it would be ‘correct’. Even though she explains to them that famous scientists have made great discoveries precisely because their hypothesis was ‘wrong’.
Recently, a student at Pittsburgh, Obama wrote in the school newspaper about high-stakes testing, “ These standardized tests have become increasingly stressful for the teachers and students. There is too much at stake on one test that you take once a year. It has gotten to the point where the tests are a disruption to learning”.
High-stakes tests cause a narrowing of the curriculum and undermine the quality of instruction. Classes and subjects that are not tested have been increasingly eliminated in PPS. At Liberty (a Spanish magnet) students previously had Spanish every day. No more. The time allocated for Spanish has been replaced by more ELA and Math because Spanish is not tested.
Liberty is fortunate though, we still have a full time art and music teacher. Some schools do not, because they have even more ELA and Math. Schools that perform poorly on the PSSA have art and music instruction once every six days and schools that perform better on the PSSA have full-time art and music instruction.
Children identified as ‘low performers’ on the high-stakes PSSA are given more frequent assessments and are subjected to drill and kill methods of instruction. Simply for the purpose of enabling them to achieve higher standardized test scores. This is not quality instruction nor is it learning.
At a community meeting at UPREP Milliones, I learned that a decision was recently made to ensure that students can pass the Keystone Algebra 1 Exam (a high-stakes test). Students at UPREP will have 2 years worth of instruction in Algebra 1. But, as a result, Algebra 2 (with no high-stakes test attached to it) will be taught as a double block in one semester. Cramming a years worth of curriculum into one semester is not a best practice for teaching and learning.
High-stakes tests cause poor school climates. The use of high-stakes testing has turned our schools into test prep centers. This increases barriers to real learning and student engagement.
Students themselves, like the Obama student I quoted above, report high levels of stress and anxiety associated with their performance on high-stakes testing.
The fear that some students or subgroups will bring down test scores contributes to a hostile and stressful school climate. This creates animosity between racial and economic groups. Students with disabilities are often vilified because they disproportionately score lower on high-stakes tests.
Since the beginning of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the focus on results of high-stakes tests, suspensions rates and expulsions have increased and graduation rates have decreased. Colleges and Universities have reported that students are less prepared for the challenges of higher education (academic and non-academic).
High-stakes tests may not accurately measure learning and achievement. Why do certain subgroups disproportionately score lower on these tests? Is it possible that the PSSA has a racial, economic and ability bias build in that is beneficial to certain subgroups of students?
Racial, economic and ability gaps in testing outcomes exist but I refuse to call it an ‘achievement gap’. Our students are achieving every day—we just don’t have a system in place to measure and celebrate these learning achievements. Parents are told that this is the EASIEST way to measure learning, not the BEST way.
The overuse and misuse of high-stakes testing has the unintended consequence of INCREASING INEQUITY and violating all childrens’ civil rights to a free and appropriate education. Inequity in Pittsburgh Public Schools has increased in the following ways:
   increase in student suspensions (students being pushed-out of learning)
   high turn-over of teachers and principals in low performing schools (as measured by the test results)
   punitively closing schools in communities of color and low income
   teaching to the test for specific students
   elimination of rich curriculum for specific students
Do you know how much of our limited resources and precious time is spent on high-stakes testing in our District? A recent Bill has been introduced in the Oregon Legislative Assembly (HB 2664) related to standardized tests calling for an evaluation of the use of standardized tests in the public schools. The evaluation will include the fiscal, administrative and educational impacts of these tests with respect to the impact on instructional time, curricula, professional flexibility, administrative time and focus, and budgets.
My vision for excellent Pittsburgh Public Schools includes real equity; schools in all of our neighborhoods, small class sizes, support for whole child, rich, engaging and culturally-responsive curriculums, professionally trained, developed and experienced teachers, time for teachers to collaborate, and resources available to support the needs of students and teachers.
I will continue to advocate for educational policies and programs in Pittsburgh Public Schools that reflect my religious and philosophical beliefs based on equitable education for all children. Test-score driven educational policies, including high-stakes testing, have no place in my vision for a high quality education.
Pamela Harbin

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