Last year, Manheim Township mom Renee Heller was one of 15 parents in Lancaster County to opt her children out of PSSAs, the state-mandated tests for elementary and middle schools. This year, if her efforts with a new group are successful, she'll be one of dozens.
Lancaster County Opt Out held its first public event last month and administrators at four local school districts have already reported increased numbers of parents opting their kids out of the upcoming PSSAs. Some say that trend could wind up hurting schools.
It all started with a movie screening. "Standardized," a documentary about standardized tests and public schools, played at Zoetropolis theater in Lancaster in January. The discussion afterward turned to the little-known provision of state education law that excuses students from state assessments if parents object to them for religious reasons.
A small but growing number of local parents, like Heller, have used that exemption as a vehicle to express frustration with standardized tests in recent years.
"(At the screening) someone said, is there a Lancaster County group? So we chatted and decided that it needed to be done," said Heller.
Heller and Leslie Gates, a Millersville University art education professor, joined forces to form Lancaster County Opt Out. Similar groups are cropping up throughout the country, according to published reports.
Gates lives in Hempfield School District but her children are not yet school age. She and Heller launched their group last month with an information session about opting out at Manheim Township Public Library.
More than 30 parents and teachers from six school districts showed up to the meeting. Heller and Gates shared reasons to consider opting out, and the steps to do so, before opening the meeting to stories from parents who had been through the process.
Gates called the state testing system "educational malpractice" and said it doesn't line up with "decades of educational research that tell us important things about how kids learn and what they need."
According to the state Department of Education website, assessments are used in reading, math, science and writing to "allow schools and districts to evaluate their students' progress to make full proficiency a reality."
Other parents at the meeting voiced concerns about the amount of class time devoted to test prep and rising test-related anxiety among kids.
Brenda Groff, a Penn Manor parent who attended the meeting, decided to opt one of her daughters out this year. She said she does not like that standardized tests put kids into one box.
"Maddy thinks very differently. She's very bright, but if you're going to assess her on standardized testing, you're not going to see her brightness shine," Groff said in a phone interview last week.
Maddy is an eighth grader at Manor Middle School. Groff said her second daughter, Avery, "thrives in a standardized testing environment," so she let the fourth grader decide about opting out. Avery chose to take PSSAs.
Although the opt out exemption is based on religion, it wasn't among the reasons for opting out discussed at the Lancaster County Opt Out meeting.
But Groff said respecting her daughters' differences is a matter of faith.
"God has made us all very uniquely," she said. "For me, opting out is a religious choice."
Some parents at the February meeting warned that administrators might push back against parent decisions, but Groff said her process went smoothly. She wrote a letter to the superintendent and principal and was contacted by Principal Dana Edwards immediately.
"I want to meet with (parents), not to discourage them but to let them know that 'yes, this is your right, and that I don't have any ill feelings toward you or son or daughter,' " Edwards said in a phone interview last week.
Some administrators are worried about the overall effect that increasing opt-outs could have on schools, though.
Test participation rate is a factor on School Performance Profiles, the state's ranking system for schools. The target rate is 95 percent, so in a school of 550 kids like Manor Middle, 28 opt-outs could tip the score. Student test scores also factor into new teacher evaluations implemented this year.
Hempfield Superintendent Brenda Becker noted that low school performance scores can limit some funds they can apply for from the state.
"I do understand where the parents are coming from with their concern about the increased emphasis on testing and the time it takes from instruction, but it would be more helpful if they would direct efforts toward the folks who make those decisions in Harrisburg," she said.
Penn Manor Superintendent Michael Leichliter said he'd "rather see no opt-outs or a couple thousand opt-outs" because having a handful hurts schools without making a difference to the state.
The superintendents also noted that finding alternative educational activities for students during tests increases teachers' workloads.
The first round of PSSAs begins this month. Penn Manor, Hempfield and Manheim Township officials all reported receiving more opt out letters than usual this year, with as many ten at Manheim Township so far. A Conestoga Valley representative said the district had no opt-outs last year but one this year.
Heller agreed that legislators are responsible for the changes she wants to see in schools. She said that not all tests are bad but the money being made by companies that create, deliver and score the tests alarms her.
"It's leading to our education system being treated like a business. Our kids are not commodities," she said.
Gates said she doesn't have a particular agenda for changes in education, but she wants parents to be aware of their role.
"I want parents to know who their legislators are and what they have the right to ask from them. I want parents to feel like they have more say over what's happening to their kids in school," she said.
Groff said having that voice benefited her daughter.
"If anything, Maddy feels empowered that we were advocates and we could stand up for what's right for her. For any teenager, feeling that way is going to be part of their character," she said.