‘You can’t expect much success on standardized tests when students don’t even have basic supplies’ — editorial

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The editorial board of a big-city newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, has gone on record as not only supporting the right of parents to have their children opt out of high-stakes standardized tests but also saying they are “right to protest” in this manner.

The editorial (below), refers to this news story in the Inquirer that discusses parents whose children are opting out of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams. It started this way:

Robin Roberts did the math, and she was astonished.

By Roberts’ count, her third grader was going to spend six school days — at least 12 hours — taking state standardized tests beginning this month at C.W. Henry Elementary, a public school in Mount Airy. Her fifth grader would lose nine school days to the PSSAs, and her eighth grader 11 days….

… “If our schools are not getting the resources to offer a basic education, what is happening?” she asked. “If it’s so important for us to do well on these tests, why are they not setting us up to succeed? The test doesn’t say anything about what my children have learned, what they’re able to achieve.”

So she had them opt out.

In Philadelphia and elsewhere around the country, standardized test scores have become the most important metric for evaluating students, teachers, schools, principals and even districts. This emphasis on scores from tests that don’t measure much of what students are supposed to know and do has led to a nationwide opt-out movement in which thousands of parents have decided not to allow their children to take the tests.

Some administrators, worried that their schools could somehow be penalized  by federal education rules that require annual standardized testing in schools, are designing punitive policies to dissuade families from making the opt-out decision. One, called “sit and stare,” forces opt-out kids to sit in their chairs while other students take the exams. They can’t read, write or listen to music; they can only look around. Now parents are pushing back against “sit and stare.”

The Philadelphia public school system has been drastically underfunded under the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett (R), so much so that last fall it was not clear that district schools had the money to open — and when they did it, it was without many of the basic things that one would expect in a public school. Things like a desk for every student. A nurse at every school. A full time guidance counselor, an assistant principal, and a librarian at every school. Even getting enough paper to operate was a problem.

As the budget process for the next school year proceeds this spring, it looks as though another awful situation is in the making. According to “The Notebook” Web site, the School Reform Commission voted recently “to approve a $2.8 billion ‘lump sum’ budget for fiscal 2015 that counts on receiving $440 million more in revenue than it currently has secured.” It did this after “an unprecedented scene in City Hall, when a few dozen school principals clogged the corridors to dramatize the appalling conditions in their schools and ask Council members for more funds.”

An opinion piece in Education Week titled “Desperate Times for Schools in the City of Brotherly Love” says that “hundreds of public schools and tens of thousands of children have been left largely on their own to forage and fund-raise for the basics of modern education.”

The Inquirer editorial board, in what seems like a first among the country’s biggest newspapers, went on record as supporting the decision by Roberts and other parents. Here’s the brief editorial:

Parents are right to protest the oversize emphasis placed on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams when so many schools are poorly funded.

Robin Roberts says her three children won’t be taking the PSSAs with the rest of the students at Philadelphia’s C.W. Henry Elementary School. “If it’s so important for us to do well on these tests, why are they not setting us up to succeed?” asked Roberts.

It’s a good question. You can’t expect much success on standardized tests when students don’t even have basic supplies. The Philadelphia School District is still operating with a deficit. A fund-raising drive was held just to provide pens, crayons, and paper to students.

The state allows students to opt out of the PSSAs for religious reasons. But if enough parents follow Roberts’ example, maybe Gov. Corbett and the legislature will make it a higher priority to increase funding not just for Philadelphia, but for schools across the state.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | March 28