I have become a conscientious objector and will not administer them any more
April 22, 2015 12:00 AM
By Mary King
I am an English as a second language teacher in grades four to eight at Pittsburgh Colfax K-8. The other day one of my ESL students passed me a note with a shy smile as he left our classroom: “Learn English is the best thinks a never have in my life.” My heart melted. This 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.
It is my professional opinion that this experience will set my student back, that it will hurt his progress, but my professional opinion will never be weighed against the many requirements — federal, state and district-wide —which demand that these tests be given.
Two more stories about my students:
A girl who returned to her native country in March talked about knowing only a few greetings in English but having to take the PSSA math test during her first week here and how she remembers crying throughout the week. I remember, too.
I also remember the student who had no formal schooling before she became an eighth-grader at Colfax who wrote “I love ESL” repeatedly on her math test to save face with the other students working around her because she was not even able to understand the questions.
It is with these students in mind, and many others, that I have asked the principal of my school to re-assign me during PSSA testing. I can no longer, in good conscience, administer the PSSA. I am ready to become a defender of my students — a conscientious objector.
You might be thinking: “We all took standardized tests each year when we were kids and we’re OK!”
But things have changed. It is no longer the same as when you and I were in school. Most of us had only two mornings of testing, perhaps, in math and reading. Most Pittsburgh Public Schools sixth-graders are required to take 22 standardized tests this year.
You might be thinking, “As a teacher you can use the results of these tests to help the students improve.” But I cannot. The tests are developmentally inappropriate for my students, written far above their grade level.
Worse, neither the students’ families nor their teachers will receive the students’ PSSA test scores until long after the school year has ended. Even then, the individual results, the questions that the students got wrong, will never be known, remaining a mystery for-ever to all except the testing company.
I am a strong advocate for my students within the ESL department and with my colleagues at Colfax. My students need to feel safe and cared about in order to cope with the challenges they face learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture. So this act of conscience is an extension of my advocacy for my students. It might not affect their experience this year, or change any state or district policies, but, for me, it is the right thing to do.
These tests are not helping. They are hurting many of my students. I can no longer, in good conscience, administer the PSSA tests to my students.
Mary King has been teaching for nearly 26 years, all but four of them in Pittsburgh Public Schools. In addition to teaching ESL, she has been a school librarian, language arts teacher and school psychologist. She lives in Squirrel Hill.
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