Sarah Kuzmenko, a Manheim Township mother of two, feels like parents don’t have much of a say when it comes to their children’s education.
But when it comes to standardized tests, she makes her voice heard.
Kuzmenko has opted her two sons — now in third and fourth grade at Bucher Elementary School — out of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments the last two years.
In a way, she said, it’s a protest. But she’s able to use a religious exemption — the only legal way, besides a medical emergency, to prevent a child from taking the state’s high-stakes exams.
"They’re using one measurement to measure every student across the state, and I believe that is wrong," Kuzmenko told LNP in a phone interview Wednesday. “Children, they learn differently.”
More parents than ever have joined the booming opt-out movement this year.
Including Kuzmenko’s two kids, 941 Lancaster County students opted out. That’s 14% more than last year, when 822 students opted out — and more than 6,000% more than the 15 opt-outs in 2013.
While the current numbers represent a miniscule portion of the county’s test-eligible students, school administrators have expressed concern over participation rates as opt-outs increase.
Currently, every Pennsylvania student in grades three through eight is assessed in English language arts and math. Students in grades four and eight are assessed in science.
“As a district, we strongly encourage parents or guardians to have their students take the tests,” Hempfield Superintendent Mike Bromirski said.
Hempfield had 156 opt-outs this year, the most of any Lancaster County district and 70% more than last year’s 92.
PSSAs only provide a “snapshot,” Bromirski said, but they do provide helpful data for administrators looking to gauge student achievement. Fewer test-takers means less data. It can also mean fewer students scoring proficient, which can drag state-reported scores down to levels unrepresentative of the district.
Those scores are published annually on the Future Ready PA Index, Pennsylvania’s school assessment tool.
Many districts send out letters encouraging students to take the exams, as well as getting a good night’s rest and eating a hearty breakfast beforehand.
But it doesn’t always work.
Parents can opt out by sending a letter to their school principal. According to state law, they then must go to the school during "convenient hours" to review the test, sign a nondisclosure agreement and confirm which tests - English language arts, math and science - they’ll be opting out of.
Elizabethtown Area spokesman Troy Portser said there’s not much else a district can do.
“We take our parents at face value, and I think that’s all we can really do,” he said.
While opt-outs can reflect poorly on a school district, Penn Manor Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Jerry Egan said he understands high-stakes tests can be “a nuisance” — not just for student and parents.
“It’s a good way for districts to understand how they fare and how their students fare,” he said. “I think my frustration lies in the amount of administrative and clerical work it takes to prepare students for the assessment.”
Administrators, he said, can take days preparing exam booklets the week prior to testing. Every booklet — two for each section, in most cases — must be labeled and matched with every student.
“I do see value in having some level of standardized assessment across the state to help us understand how we’re meeting Pennsylvania core standards,” he said, “but I wish that we could come up with a more efficient system.”
For Kuzmenko, an open discussion about the value of standardized tests is all she wants.
“Tests do not in any way actually benefit our children,” she said. “There are several other opportunities that could be explored.”