I am an English professor. So you can imagine how my pride was hurt when my 9-year-old son Jacob started bringing home low scores on his practice reading tests for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment.
My husband and I have been helping Jacob with his test-prep reading homework every weeknight this year, and it has been a grim slog. At times I have found myself getting angry when Jacob has fidgeted, or when he has had trouble focusing. Sometimes I have gotten angry when he simply hasn't been able to answer the questions.
Then one day this March it dawned on me. I am getting angry at my son about a test. A test that I do not like. A "high-stakes" test that will put so much pressure on Jacob that it probably will not reflect his true abilities. I also realized something else: Jacob does not love to read.
After doing some research and talking with other parents, my husband and I decided to "opt out" Jacob from the PSSA tests. We are opting him out because we do not like what high-stakes tests are doing to Jacob, to our family, to his teachers, to his school and, ultimately, to our entire education system.
High-stakes tests like the PSSAs are used to evaluate, close and punish public schools, including my son's school, Pittsburgh Linden, a K-5 magnet school in Point Breeze. Linden's Adequate Yearly Progress score is bound to Linden's PSSA test results. According to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, every public school in the United States must be 100 percent proficient in reading and math (based on test scores) by 2014.
Last year, Linden did not make AYP. In fact, only six Pittsburgh Public Schools did. A neighboring school, Colfax, which is one of the best schools in the East End, has been labeled "low-achieving" and is currently under something called "Corrective Action II." Under this label, a school can be reconstituted, chartered or privatized.
High-stakes tests also warp the educational environment. This March, as Linden was gearing up for the PSSAs, the hallways were stripped bare, though state law requires only that displays pertaining to the tests be taken down. Artwork, motivational slogans, student-made posters, the Women's History display my kids helped to make, my daughter's picture of herself as a "writer" when she grows up, the "dream" statements everyone filled out in January with the large cutout of Martin Luther King -- all of it has been removed. During testing season, access to Linden's new iPads -- for which I helped to write the grant that allowed us to acquire them -- will also be curtailed.
The curriculum at Linden is narrowing, too. As testing has ratcheted up, and as Gov. Tom Corbett's billion-dollar cut to Pennsylvania's K-12 education budget have kicked in, schools across the state are dropping programs that are not measured by tests.
Last year at Linden the third-grade band program was cut, dozens of hours of music instruction were cut, our science programming was reduced, and we were slated to lose our art teacher (fortunately we were able to save her). We lost dozens of hours of library instruction, and children are allowed access to the library only once every two weeks. Ironically, the loss of our library hours will hurt the students more when it comes to testing. A recent study found that "[w]ith a full-time librarian, students are more likely to score 'Advanced' and less likely to score 'Below Basic' on reading and writing tests."
Also, there is the stress. Jacob, only a third-grader, has cried, gotten dejected and thrown fits over his test-prep requirements, both at home and at school. Sixth graders in our district will take 23 different tests this year -- up from nine the previous year.
During the tests, students are treated like prisoners, with limited bathroom breaks and constant monitoring. These conditions are especially hard for special-needs children and children with Individual Education Plans.
Teachers are also stressed. My son's third-grade teacher has been working so hard this year that he arrives many days as early as 6 a.m. and stays for hours after school, sometimes as late as 9 p.m. From around the district I am hearing stories about teachers crying in the hall -- devastated by the harm they believe the tests are inflicting.
Let me be clear. I believe in evaluation as a tool -- I use quizzes and other testing techniques in my college classroom. But high-stakes tests, tests used to label schools, teachers and students as failures, are damaging our nation's educational system.
Here in Pittsburgh and across southwestern Pennsylvania, the movement to opt out of standardized testing is taking root. In the Pittsburgh Public Schools there are parents at Colfax, Greenfield, Liberty, Linden, Montessori and Phillips who are opting their children out of the PSSAs. Across the region, some parents in Mt. Lebanon, Somerset County and Westmoreland County are doing so as well.
The opt-out movement is also swelling nationwide. Earlier this year, teachers in several Seattle high schools refused to administer a high-stakes test called the MAP. In Portland, Ore.; Providence, R.I.; and Denver, Colo., students themselves have been leading the charge against the tests. Just last month in Texas, more than 10,000 parents rallied against an increase in testing and decrease in funding for Texas public schools. Some of these actions are coming under the banner of United Opt Out National (unitedoptout.com).
Next month, while Jacob's classmates are nervously sharpening their pencils and getting hushed by their teachers, Jacob is going to be in the Linden library, reading for pleasure -- a pastime I have encouraged and rewarded since I realized that Jacob isn't keen on reading.
With this act of civil disobedience, our family will contribute to the revolt against the standardized testing that is hurting students, schools and the quality of education. I want my children to learn, but also to love to learn. Don't you?
Corrections, posted April 2: This article reflects the following corrections: The state requires schools administering the PSSAs to remove from view posters and other materials that could provide test answers. State law does not require that hallways be stripped bare. Also, the Mt. Lebanon School District did not cut back on recess, extend the school day or reduce such services as nursing and counseling to make room for PSSA or other standardized tests.
Kathy M. Newman is an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University (firstname.lastname@example.org). First Published March 31, 2013 4:00 AM