Leah Guizar believes good tests prove knowledge and help with student growth.
The mother of three children in the Bellefonte Area School District for the past two years has chosen to opt out her kids from taking the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments, otherwise known as PSSA exams.
She said it’s her way of advocating against state standardized tests, and taking a stand for those who might not fight for themselves regarding the issue.
Her stance is inspired by her oldest daughter, Eden Guizar — a seventh-grader with cerebral palsy who functions on a first- to third-grade level, Guizar said.
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Guizar addressed the Bellefonte Area school board at a bi-monthly meeting last month and explained four reasons why her family participates in what’s called the opt out movement: cost of PSSAs; the lack of pragmatic testing; not accommodating to all students; and its original intent to meet the No Child Left Behind act, which was repealed in 2015.
To address new standards, the state Department of Education is amending guidelines through an initiative called Future Ready PA Index, which broadens factors in evaluating schools, teachers and students, including reducing the weight of assessments.
State Department of Education requested more than $58 million for testing for the 2017-18 school year
Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-West Whiteland Township, said last month that representatives from PDE requested more than $58 million for testing for the 2017-18 school year. That reportedly also included storage and assessment of testing data.
He added that PDE has also spent more than $115 million on testing and related contracts during the 2015-16 school year and the first half of the 2016-17 school year.
Part of that spending also trickles down to districts.
Bellefonte Area Assistant Superintendent Tammie Burnaford said the district pays a contractor to develop the tests.
We pay a company called DRC to develop the test, and DRC then charges the state, and the DRC also corrects those tests — or scores those tests — and that’s another fee
Tammie Burnaford, Bellefonte Area assistant superintendent
“We pay a company called DRC to develop the test, and DRC then charges the state, and the DRC also corrects those tests — or scores those tests — and that’s another fee,” she said.
The PSSAs are administered in the spring and measure third- through eighth-grade students in math and English/language arts. Students in fourth and eighth grades are also assessed in science.
Howard Elementary School Principal Skip Pighetti said state-enforced testing protocol limits students from receiving help on those exams.
“The classrooms are stale,” he said. “Bulletin boards are covered up and teachers are asked not to assist students in anyway which would lead to answers. They actively monitor students, but can do nothing to help guide answers.”
Guizar doesn’t think that’s a realistic way to test students or help with student growth.
My argument is the effectiveness of it. The PSSAs are not a real world learning model. If we are using school as a steppingstone into the working world, PSSAs do not fit that model because in the real world, people are given multiple opportunities to find answers to questions that may be posed. The PSSAs do not allow that opportunity for kids
Leah Guizar, Bellefonte mother fighting against state standardized tests
“My argument is the effectiveness of it,” Guizar said. “The PSSAs are not a real-world learning model. If we are using school as a stepping stone into the working world, PSSAs do not fit that model because in the real world, people are given multiple opportunities to find answers to questions that may be posed. The PSSAs do not allow that opportunity for kids.”
She believes testing helps develop life skills such as working within guidelines, following direction, meeting deadline and working under pressure.
“As a teacher, this goes against everything we believe in,” Guizar said.
Guizar’s motivation to advocate for the opt out movement started a couple years ago when she was teaching at Nittany Valley Charter School in State College.
She said she found the most vulnerable students have the biggest obstacles, despite some who are eligible to take an adapted test called the Pennsylvania Alternative System of Assessment.
The Pennsylvania Alternative System of Assessment, or PASA exam, is the adaptive version that replaces the PSSAs for eligible students
Her daughter Eden, 14, has a cognitive developmental delay that only allows her to learn on an early elementary school level.
But Guizar said she doesn’t discriminate when it comes to opting out her children from taking the tests.
Guizar also has a sixth-grader, who she said is advanced, and a fourth-grader, who is an average student.
“I opt them all out of testing because of the lack of validity, but I had really hoped in my heart that the PASA test would be adapted to my child’s learning level,” she said. “I was very encouraged by this thinking that my daughter’s special requirements would be reflected in a specially-adapted version of the test.”
But it was not, Guizar said.
Eden is on an Individualized Education Program that makes her eligible to take the adapted tests to replace the PSSAs.
I found it invalid because special education students are not accommodated according to their IEPs. I cannot understand how it’s legal for students who have a legal and binding document in the form of an IEP that clearly and definitively details a given child’s present levels and learning ability, to then be required to take a test that does not match their abilities
“That’s when I started this crusade,” she said. “I found it invalid because special education students are not accommodated according to their IEPs. I cannot understand how it’s legal for students who have a legal and binding document in the form of an IEP that clearly and definitively details a given child’s present levels and learning ability, to then be required to take a test that does not match their abilities.”
The seventh-grade PASA exam includes questions for math regarding quantities, integers, fractions, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing; and English/language arts questions about inferences, character development and persuasive writing, which Guizar said Eden does not yet understand.
“Imagine my surprise when I viewed the test only to find that Eden, a child who cannot even grasp those concepts, was required to answer them,” she said.
The next step
Guizar started a campaign on Facebook that uses the phrase “Keep calm and opt out.”
She’s also made the time to discuss her concerns with local legislators.
“There is a way they can be actively learning in the classroom, but can’t because they’re stuck filling in bubbles,” Guizar said. “My children are opted out of the test in order to stand up for students and teachers who cannot stand up for themselves.”