Pittsburgh teacher stands alone by refusing to give tests
ESL educator says state exams hurt kids
May 23, 2015 12:00 AM
Mary King, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Pittsburgh Colfax K-8 refuses to give state standardized tests in Pittsburgh.
By Eleanor Chute / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As the state mandatory testing season winds down, the number of students opting out of taking the Pennsylvania System of State Assessment tests in Pittsburgh Public Schools stands at 40.
And there is one teacher.
Mary King, who teaches English as a second language at Pittsburgh Colfax K-8, became the first and only teacher in Pittsburgh to refuse to give the PSSA tests to her students, a decision that drew national attention this month on the blog of a New York University professor.
Under state requirements, ESL students — also known as English language learners — who have been in the U.S. less than a year don’t have to take the PSSA in English language arts, but they do have to take the PSSA in math and science. They can have certain accommodations, such as use of word-to-word translation dictionaries without definitions and pictures on some of the exams.
Ms. King, who is in her 26th year and is retiring this school year, said not all students get upset, but she recalled one student who had to take the math test her first week. “All she knew was ‘hello,’ ‘good-bye,’ ‘thank you.’ She cried the whole time.”
Ms. King recalled another girl who had never been to school before. “Her own language was an oral language. She didn’t understand the concept.”
By refusing to give the tests, Ms. King likely is a rarity in the state, although the state Department of Education does not have a tally because school districts aren’t required to report such cases.
Ms. King wrote a letter to assistant superintendent David May-Stein dated April 7, refusing to give the tests.
Earlier this week, Ms. King opened a letter dated May 13 from Jody Buchheit Spolar, chief of human resources for the district, referring to that letter and saying the state and federal governments require the district to give the tests.
However, Ms. Spolar said that because Ms. King has submitted her retirement notice, “this matter is moot … ”
Asked how many teachers in the state had refused to give the required state tests, Jessica Hickernell, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said: “We don’t have any data on this. It’s never been brought to our attention before.”
Nationwide, there have been scattered reports of teachers refusing to give standardized tests, including a kindergarten teacher in Gainesville, Fla., last fall. Ultimately, the Florida commissioner of education decided not to require the test in question for any students in K-2.
Ms. King teaches about two dozen students in grades 4-8 and was expected to give the test in just one grade level. Another teacher filled in, and Ms. King worked with students who were not taking the English test.
In April, Ms. King wrote an op-ed piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette saying she would be a “conscientious objector” because she thinks the tests hurt her kids.
Ms. King began writing the op-ed on spring break and, as she thought about a note a student gave her with a shy smile, she decided she couldn’t give the PSSAs.
The note said, “Learn English is the best thinks a never have in my life.”
She wrote, “My heart melted. The student arrived just last spring with absolutely no English. He is finally starting to speak above a whisper. But this student is being crushed, intellectually and emotionally. Despite the fact that he is still so new to English, he is in the midst of his scheduled 16 hours of PSSA testing; my other ESL students are scheduled for between seven and 20 hours.”
She added, “It is my professional opinion that this experience will set my student back …”
When she wrote a letter to the administration, she said, “By then, it was just a matter of conscience. I just knew it was wrong, absolutely wrong, and it didn’t match any of my core values and what I know about teaching.”
At a building meeting, she asked to read her letter and was surprised to get a “huge ovation” and to see several of the teachers crying.
“This is my thought: Everybody at some point has had a child that’s been upset by them. I think that’s why they were touched. They’ve seen the impact.”
Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said: “I do admire her convictions to protect her kids … I wish that citizens, including parents and teachers, would contact the state so a more humane system of testing could be developed for all of our students, special education, ESL and all students in general who are being inundated with tests.”
Education writer Eleanor Chute: email@example.com or 412-263-1955.
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