'Parents have the right to opt-out but they need to be informed'

After almost 20 percent of parents at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences opted their children out of standardized testing, the Philadelphia Home and School Council decided to email and robo-call every parent in the district to inform them of their right to opt their child out of high stakes tests.

On Tuesday morning parents from across the city attended an informative session at the Philadelphia School District to learn their options and discuss standardized testing concerns.

“The School District of Philadelphia doesn’t have the option to not give the test, the State says you have to give the test and the Federal government says you have to give the test,” said Alison McDowell, member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools and the Caucus of Working Educators.

In Pennsylvania under state law parents can decline to have their children take standardized tests on religious grounds. “The district are not the bad guys, but it would be nice if they would be a little bit more open about the fact that in Pennsylvania we have a legal right to have our children not take these tests,” McDowell said.

A few days after City Paper broke the news that the parents of 17 percent of students enrolled in the Feltonville School have decided their children will not participate in standardized testing this year, the Philadelphia School District started disciplinary action against the teachers at Feltonville School for informing parents of their opt out rights.

“As a consequence the district is now investigating the teachers who share information about parent’s legal rights with them. We can all agree is a parent’s right to choose but we need to be informed, we need to know the pros and the cons to make the decision,” McDowell said. “Unfortunately the people who are not in this room won’t have that information.”

Currently there are three keystone exams: English, biology and algebra. Students who are in the class of 2017 have to pass all three exams in order to get a high school diploma. According to McDowell, in Philadelphia’s neighborhood high schools only 5 percent are passing the Biology Keystone. Students have two opportunities to try to pass them, and if they don’t pass after the second try, they are required to pass a Project Base Assessment (PBA), an online computer test that might take 14 or more hours to complete.

“What everybody should know is that about half the students in the state are not passing these tests. If you have a junior or senior those exams are not graduation requirements for them, you can opt-out of those. We need to organize as parents across the state to fix the Keystone exams for the sophomores or any of the kids coming behind,” McDowell said.

During the session attendees received an opt-out facts handout, as well as opt-out letter guidelines. Jeff Robinson, assessment development coordinator at the Philadelphia School District, said if enough parents opt-out of these tests, it could affect a school’s performance.

“At the highest level of the district they are aware of this concern with students who are going to become eligible for the PBA, and that right now are not getting diplomas because they haven’t taken the test. This is going to become an issue of resources for the schools, the number of algebra, English and biology teachers I need increases, when we are already having problems with getting teachers in the building.”

A major concern is kids who are English learners because there is no alternative test for ELL students. “Students who are in their first year in the country do not have to take the reading test or the literature Keystone, but otherwise there is no alternative exam for them. For the first three years that they are in the country, they do have access to an interpreter and bilingual counsel assistance.They can use word-by-word dictionaries,” Robinson said.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015 - 4:18pm
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Ana Gamboa