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Parents pan testing system, pull kids from PSSAs

Susan Notes:

Hurrah for parents who see that these high-stakes standardized tests are violating basic fundamental principles about learning. Next step? Teachers will commit the ethical act of refusing to give the tests.

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.--Martin Luther King Jr.

Can you imagine a professional organization or a union that took a leadership role in encouraging teachers to commit such ethical acts?

by Ed Mahon

Elementary students across the county and state started taking the high-stakes standardized tests for reading and math on Monday.

Terri Vescio's 11-year-old daughter wasn't one of them.

She spent the week writing about hummingbirds. One of her classmates has been creating simple machines using Lego pieces. Another has been shooting a documentary critical of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

"After examining the content of the fifth grade PSSAs on Feb. 28, 2011, and after considering the goals, process and consequences of the PSSA, it is clear to our family that the PSSAs violate cherished beliefs and fundamental morals by which we live our lives," Vescio wrote to the acting superintendent of the State College Area School District last week.

The letter is polite, concise, 126 letters in all -- and it could be one reason why Park Forest Elementary misses the benchmarks on this year's Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams for the second year in a row.

Vescio opted her daughter out of the exams.

So did the parents of eight other children at Park Forest

Elementary School and three parents of high school students, who say the system encourages schools to narrow their curriculum, places too much stress on young students and stigmatizes good schools as failures.

On Monday, President Barack Obama pushed lawmakers to revise No Child Left Behind, citing estimates that more than 80 percent of schools nationwide will likely be labeled as failing this year.

"That's an astonishing number," Obama said, speaking at a Virginia middle school. âWe know that 4 out of 5 schools in this country arenât failing, later adding, âSo what weâre doing to measure success and failure is out of line.â

While some education experts question those numbers, they also note that there actually is no "failing" label in the No Child Left Behind Act. The state Department of Education also makes this point:

"A school that misses only one measure will not meet AYP -- but this does not mean it is a failing school," says its website. "Rather, AYP indicates to school leadership that areas of opportunity exist." [OHMYGOD, what hypocrites.]

Still, the department does refer to schools that don't make the adequate yearly progress benchmark as failing and educators say schools are perceived that way.

"One of the weaknesses of the law is treating all schools the same," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy. "Some schools have isolated problems, and some schools have massive problems. But under the law, they're all treated the same."

Vescio and fellow Park Forest parent Michele Gray were encouraging other parents to opt out in the weeks leading up to the PSSAs. They did so knowing it could cause the school to fail to meet the state criteria this year -- but because of rising standards, they believed the school would eventually fail.

"Let's push the conversation," said Vescio, a psychology professor at Penn State. "Is this a school we want changed?"

Beyond the tests

Park Forest Elementary School, by many standards, is above average.

Last year on the PSSAs, 92 percent of Park Forest fourth-graders scored at grade level for math, compared to 84.9 percent statewide. For reading, 87.5 percent of fourth-grade students scored at grade level compared to 72.9 percent statewide.

And then there's what the statistics donât measure. Students dug soil, placed clay and created their own wetlands on the school grounds, which is now used for science classes. Teachers there encourage service learning and activism.

Since April 2009, students, teachers and parents have helped collect more than 2,000 books for African libraries.

Last year, a group of students polled their classmates, met with the district's food services director and were responsible for the district offering lunches with less fat.

"It just feels like such a safe wonderful, nurturing environment,â said Gray, who is married to a Centre Daily Times reporter.

Added Vescio: "We have an amazing school."

But last year the school failed to make adequate yearly progress, because only 55 percent of special education students performed at grade level on the reading test. Under No Child Left Behind, schools are judged not only on the overall performance of their students, but on the performance of several subgroups, as long as the school has more than 40 students in the subgroup. Subgroup categories include black, Asian, Latino, economically disadvantaged and special education students.

Only one other State College elementary school had enough special education students to be judged on the performance of that subgroup.

Park Forest Principal Donnan Stoicovy told parents in September that the school hadn't made AYP because one subgroup missed the target. Afterward a parent approached Stoicovy.

"I am so sorry," Stoicovy recalls her saying. "My daughter's score is the reason you didn't make AYP."

Stoicovy insisted that no parent or child should feel responsible. Still, the moment has stayed with her.

"That tears at my heart," she said.

Fearing the tests

If Park Forest misses AYP a second time, in the special education subgroup, those students could be eligible to transfer to another school in the district. Schools that miss AYP three years in a row have to offer tutoring services to students. Nationally, most students eligible for services don't take them, said Jennings.

Jennings considers judging schools based on subgroups a strength of the law, but said determining the expectations for special education students is a challenge. The state does make some allowances, in terms of the tests that can be given to certain special education students.

Dana Mitra, an education professor at Penn State, compared the PSSAs to Advanced Placement exams, given to high school students. "A system based on assessment is only as strong as the assessment itself," said Mitra, who's also the mother of a third-grader who is taking her first PSSAs at Easterly Parkway Elementary.

She said the AP exams receive less pushback, in part, because they encourage more critical thinking.

"You're teaching to that AP exam," she said, "but there's common ground that the assessment is effective."

Schools that miss AYP benchmarks one year have several ways to meet them the next year. The state measures those schools not just on their bottom line score, but on how much progress their students make.

Vescio's daughter doesn't mind the tests. But other parents, like Gray, say their children get stressed over them.

"Students think the fate of their schools depends on their test performance, which is a monstrous burden for kids," Gray wrote in an op-ed column.

Marybeth Irvin, director of curriculum for kindergarten through eighth grade in the district, called those concerns legitimate.

"I really feel that the schools try to mitigate that in many ways. They try to break it up with fun activities."

This week, on testing days, elementary students received extra recess, treats and healthy snacks. Middle school students participated in science, health and diversity fairs in the afternoons. Activities at the high school included a film festival and ultimate Frisbee games.

Opting out

Vescio and Gray got the idea to opt their children out of taking the tests, after reading a Huffington Post article by Penn State Altoona education professor Timothy Slekar. In order to opt out, parents had to review test materials (after promising not to reveal details about them), then write a letter to the superintendent saying why the test violates their religious beliefs. [emphasis added]

Gray's letter mentioned her Catholic faith. Vescio's letter didn't refer to any religion, but mentioned her "cherished beliefs and fundamental morals."

In an interview, Vescio explained that under No Child Left Behind, schools that don't meet AYP for two years are eligible for federal money. Vescio thinks other schools are more deserving of that than Park Forest, where a relatively low percentage of students come from low-income families.

District officials haven't discouraged parents from opting out.

"Theyâre completely within their rights as long as they follow the protocols," said Irvin.

It's not clear what impact their opting out will have. Under No Child Left Behind, if fewer than 95 percent of students in a school -- or in a subgroup -- donât take the tests, a school will not make AYP.

If Vescio had recruited the parents of 12 other children, the entire school would have failed. In the end, she came up three short of that number.

It's not clear how the results for subgroups will be affected.

"Weâre working hard for next year," she said. "It would be just wonderful if we have 100 percent opting out by the time we get to 2014."

Read more:

— Ed Mahon
Centre Daily Times



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