Education

PSSA opt out choice supported by many but could impact school, teacher evaluations

Leah Guizar opted her kids, Eden, 14, Caden, 11, and Vivian, 9, out of the PSSA testing.
Leah Guizar opted her kids, Eden, 14, Caden, 11, and Vivian, 9, out of the PSSA testing. adrey@centredaily.com

Dozens of local families with children in third to eighth grade are participating in what’s called the opt out movement when it comes to state standardized tests.

One Bellefonte woman, Leah Guizar, is making it her mission to advocate for the cause — not because she’s against testing, but because she doesn’t support the reasoning behind a set of tests that she said cost too much and don’t benefit students.

The state Department of Education allows families to have their child opt out of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments, otherwise known as PSSA exams. All families have this option as long as they notify school administrators of their choice.

However, the opt out option could come at a price.

“Opting out can affect how our schools are rated throughout the state,” Philipsburg-Osceola Area Superintendent Gregg Paladina said.

Bellefonte Area Superintendent Michelle Saylor encourages the public to meet with lawmakers to help change education laws regarding testing mandates at the state level.

They need to hear parents’ voices; they’re tired of hearing our voices, quite frankly, and they shut us down because they know what we’re going to say to them. The concerns with the opt out from the district’s perspective is, unfortunately, the way the system is set up, those tests are tied to what we call school improvement… It’s a no-win situation.

Michelle Saylor, Bellefonte Area superintendent

They need to hear parents’ voices; they’re tired of hearing our voices, quite frankly, and they shut us down because they know what we’re going to say to them,” she said. “The concerns with the opt out from the district’s perspective is, unfortunately, the way the system is set up, those tests are tied to what we call school improvement… It’s a no-win situation.”

Additionally, Saylor said those tests are also “unfortunately” tied to teacher evaluations.

“Again, if we lose participation, we lose our score that’s reflected in the teacher evaluation although it’s no fault of his or her own,” she said. “Our hands are tied, we’re really strapped. We really need the community, we need the parents. We need everyone to step up and we need you to go to your legislators and say, ‘Hey, enough is enough because changes need to be made in school code.’ ”

Students who opt out of the tests attend school on assessment days as they normally would any other school day. Activity is dependent on the individual needs or skills of the student, and worked out with teachers and school administrators.

“While the tests are being administered, the students are given enrichment and/or educational activities to complete in another classroom or area,” Bellefonte Area Assistant Superintendent Tammie Burnaford said.

Testing changes

To help accommodate requests for those against standardized testing, while also meeting the needs of the state, education Secretary Pedro Rivera gave a group of educators and advocates information about what some called hopeful news regarding the reduction of testing.

During the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools conference earlier this month, Rivera said the state Department of Education has goals that include reducing state standardized testing by 25 percent.

That comes with the Future Ready PA Index to replace School Performance Profile — or SPP scores — which levels the playing field and focuses on student growth; explores career pathways; reduces reliance of standardized testing in school ratings; makes sure students are college and career ready; and creates multiple pathways to student success, according to the Future Ready PA Index website.

Representatives from the state PDE traveled throughout the commonwealth and held more than 30 feedback sessions with educators and community members. They got the message that there is no single way to measure student success.

State to roll out Future Ready PA Index, which gives more broad ways to evaluate schools, teachers.

Under the new index, the goal is to broaden factors to evaluate school and student performance.

“The new Future Ready PA Index will include additional, more holistic indicators of student success, which will enable the department to facilitate the reduction of testing time at schools across the commonwealth,” PDE Communications Director Casey Smith said. “Standardized tests are an important measure of achievement, but we know there are other, more comprehensive ways to gauge performance beyond high-stakes, point-in-time assessments, which serve as a snapshot and don’t always tell the whole story.”

Standardized test scores will still be reported on the Future Ready PA Index, but the reduction in time on PSSA exams is driven by the” near universal agreement among parents and educators that the testing system should be more efficient,” Smith said.

Those assessments are specifically geared toward the PSSA exams that test third- to eighth-grade students in English, language arts, math and science.

“The goal is to reduce the administration time of PSSA exams beginning in the spring of 2018,” Smith said.

Taking a stand

While this is hopeful news to some who advocate against state standardized testing, Guizar, a mother of three children in the Bellefonte Area School District, said she is still against state standardized testing, and for the past two years has chosen for her children to opt out of taking the tests.

“Taking tests is a task that should add value, but the fact is they (state standardized tests) have no relevance and cost about $58 million a year,” she said. “That money could be better used elsewhere or in a way that enhances student learning in a realistic learning environment.”

She addressed the Bellefonte Area school board at a meeting earlier this month, and her issues were supported by many district administrators and board members.

I think we pretty much all agree with the testing being totally out of control and this conversation needs to be taken to legislation.

Robert Lumley-Sapanski, Bellefonte Area school board member

“You’re talking to the choir here,” board member Robert Lumley-Sapanski said. “I think we pretty much all agree with the testing being totally out of control, and this conversation needs to be taken to legislation.”

And that’s just what Guizar is doing.

She said she’s met with Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte; plans to address the state education committee; and started a social media push to help better educate locals on the issue.

“It’s time people know what’s going on and what their options are and what they can do to make a stand,” Guizar said.

Britney Milazzo: 814-231-4648, @M11azzo

PSSA opt out numbers for 2016-17

Bald Eagle Area

740 students took the tests, 10 opted out

Bellefonte Area

1,258 total students enrolled in third- to eighth-grades. The district received 19 parent requests for exclusion from the PSSAs — or 1.5 percent of students who opted out of testing

Penns Valley

22 students did not take the tests of a total 658 students eligible for PSSAs. That is about 3.3 percent who opted out

Philipsburg-Osceola Area

818 students tested this year, 12 students opted out

State College Area

3,030 students took the test, 169 students opted out — 36 fewer than in 2015-16 school year

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