Leslie Gates

Leslie Gates

Just weeks after teachers from Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences in Philadelphia faced “possible disciplinary action” for notifying parents of the right to opt their children out of standardized testing, the School District of Philadelphia announced it will now provide all parents with information on how to opt out.

Neither the district’s lack of follow-through on its threat to discipline the teachers nor its change in policy should surprise us. This has happened all over the United States.

Susan Bowles, a Florida kindergarten teacher, refused to give such tests and was not fired. Nor was Beth Dimino from Long Island, or the 90 percent of teachers from Garfield High School in Seattle who refused to administer standardized tests in 2013.

As in the case of Feltonville, initial press reports described possible sanctions these teachers faced. But the sanctions are generally nebulous, and the districts take no disciplinary action.

Instead, two things consistently seem to result from teachers’ courageous actions to resist high-stakes, state-mandated tests. First, district administrations reconsider their policies on testing; second, an increasing number of parents opt out their children.

I respectfully disagree with those who argue that the high-stakes tests are necessary and effective. I will highlight a few of my reasons here.

Tests are designed so that not everyone will pass. If a question on a pilot version of the test is answered correctly by too many test takers, the question is not used in final version of the test.

In Pennsylvania, we have a law requiring every student to pass the Keystone Exams in order to graduate, beginning with the Class of 2017. Shouldn’t passing the courses required for graduation in the Pennsylvania Public School Code mean one graduates?

Expecting high school graduates to have certain knowledge and skills is not unreasonable. What is unreasonable is using high-stakes tests, written and scored by someone other than the students’ teachers, as the measure.

Standardized tests have been around for decades and provide specific types of information that can be useful in assessing certain types of knowledge. Plenty of existing tests already do this, including the National Assessment for Educational Progress.

But policies that tie the scores of Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests and Keystone Exams to school funding, graduation requirements and teacher evaluations —the “high stakes”— are uninformed by research and cost our state millions of dollars.

Recently, members of the American Statistical Association described the test-based teacher evaluation as “unreliable.” But why would we trust statisticians to tell us how to properly use statistics? After all, we don’t let educators tell us how to properly assess schoolchildren.

It’s not easy to break the cycle of fear surrounding these high-stakes tests.

Teachers have been afraid to refuse to give the tests, fearing disciplinary action. District administrators, already strapped for resources, have been afraid to refuse state testing mandates, fearing loss of funding.

Parents have been afraid to opt out their children, fearing the negative effect on their school’s performance or funding. And policymakers are afraid of not being re-elected by taxpayers, including fearful parents.

These fears exist despite the fact that resistance to testing has rarely, if ever, resulted in the things feared.

Educational testing companies continue to benefit, despite the fact that a growing number of people agree that the tests do more harm than good. Data Recognition Corp., for example, currently holds a $201 million contract with Pennsylvania.

Teachers and parents, resisting together, have the best chance of getting our assessment policies back in check.

Teachers at Feltonville interrupted the cycle of fear by choosing to believe that acting in the best interest of students was the right thing to do. The district followed, proving the teachers’ fear was unfounded.

What have we learned from these civilly disobedient and courageous teachers? The fear surrounding these tests is smoke and mirrors. Take note. That might be on the test.

Leslie Gates, Ph.D., is an art education professor at Millersville University and co-founder of Lancaster County Opt Out. She is also a former public school teacher.

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