The sticky notes told the story of what some parents and teachers think of standardized tests:
Students and teachers are too stressed. Children aren’t seen as a whole. Test preparation takes the place of classes, activities and field trips. Labels based on test performance damage students’ sense of self-worth and limit their opportunities. Money is spent on testing that could go to other needs.
The sticky notes came from about three dozen parents and teachers who attended a “test-in” on high-stakes K-12 testing hosted by Yinzercation and co-sponsored by Great Public Schools Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Mellon University Center for the Arts and Society. Yinzercation is part of Great Public Schools, which also includes Action United, One Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union 32BJ and SEIU Healthcare PA.
The session, which was held Saturday at CMU, comes as schools throughout the state prepare for the spring season of mandated state testing. The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests begin next month in English language arts in grades 3-8, math in grades 3-8 and science in grades 4 and 8.
In addition, the Keystone Exams, which will be part of a graduation requirement starting with the Class of 2017, will be given in May in algebra 1, biology and literature.
The event began with the adults taking sample questions from state tests in conditions intended to call attention to state test security requirements, such as paper covering art on the walls.
Greg Taranto, principal of Canonsburg Middle School — where more than 80 percent of students were proficient on each of the most recent state tests — said, “I strongly believe in educating the whole child.”
He said his school is unwilling to give up art, music, physical education and wellness classes to concentrate on the tests. He thinks there is an overreliance on the results of the tests and is concerned about data tracking of students.
He also is concerned about the amount of time and money spent on standardized tests. This fiscal year, the state is spending more than $58 million on assessments, not counting the costs in individual school districts.
Mr. Taranto said, for example, a guidance counselor at his school will be “consumed” with managing the tests for a month and a half, a loss of services for students.
Jon Parker, who teaches English at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, said the test performance labels affect students’ sense of self-worth. In an introductory essay that he asks students to write at the start of the year, more than half in a class of struggling readers mention their PSSA score.
He said some students who get A’s in class are ineligible for the more difficult courses because they scored poorly on the PSSA.
He also said some schools use their limited resources on students most likely to move from basic to proficient, leaving those who are below basic without extra help.
Steve Singer, who teaches eighth-grade language arts in the Steel Valley School District, said he has opted his daughter out of standardized tests in kindergarten.
“Imagine if parents rose up en masse and spoke out against toxic testing. It would end tomorrow,” he said.
The question of opting out of tests has become a nationwide issue. In Pennsylvania, parents can have their children opt out of the state tests only for religious reasons. They do not have to explain those reasons.
Some parents who attended were considering whether to take that step, and some already have done so.
In an interview, Patricia Weston, an Elliott resident whose twins are seventh-graders at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12 in East Liberty, said she began opting out when they were in fourth grade. She found the tests too stressful and too much time spent on practice sheets. “It wasn’t really benefiting my children.”
Education editor Eleanor Chute: email@example.com or 412-263-1955.