PSSA state tests are failing Pennsylvania’s children. It’s time for parents to act.


by Alison McDowell

Students, teachers, and parents deserve to savor the exciting possibilities of a new school year without the dark shadow of standardized testing hanging over their heads. Labeling nearly half the students in the state “failures” during the first weeks of school only discourages children from seeing themselves as capable, curious, engaged learners. What’s surprising is not that nearly 50% of Pennsylvania students “failed” the new PSSAs, but that the percentage of failure wasn’t even higher. In states where “rigorous” standardized tests aligned to the Common Core have been implemented­­-including New York, Washington, and Connecticut-failure rates of 70% have become routine.

Local administrators will feel pressured to boost PSSA and Keystone results that were manufactured via manipulated cut scores, questions on complex texts that sometimes required students to select multiple correct or incorrect answers (Scroll to presentation that starts at 2:20. Screen will initially be black), and questions covering content that may not have been aligned to the curriculum that was being taught. (Scroll to timestamp 14:00) Many Districts will be expected to achieve improvements under austerity budgets caused by ongoing underfunding by the state. At the same time, Governor Wolf’s proposed budget allots $58.3 million for administering and grading state assessments, the same amount allocated by Governor Corbett last year.

Non-tested subjects like social studies, art, music, and foreign languages become more vulnerable as additional minutes for test-prep and benchmarks are demanded. Lower grades, where testing must be done one-on-one, could see a significant loss of instructional time to interim testing. A review of the 2015-16 Philadelphia School District calendar of standardized assessments shows that testing will interrupt many days of teaching and learning at all grade levels. With so many standardized tests queued up, will children even have time for recess? All this bubble-filling would be enough to overwhelm an average student, but imagine you’re among the thousands of students in the state whose primary language is not English, who have an Individualized Education Plan, or who experience test-taking anxiety. For them, these tests are traumatic.

School and teacher evaluations are now tied almost exclusively to “growing” test scores on assessments that have been engineered to ensure students do worse. Members of the Pennsylvania School Board Association publicly expressed their reservations about new PSSA cut scores this summer, noting they had serious concerns about using the results for accountability purposes. Child-centered, inquiry-based learning has gradually become the domain of private schools whose freedom from state-mandated testing is increasingly touted in advertising campaigns.

Many Pennsylvanians have come to realize one-size-fits-all, high-stakes assessments that cannot be reviewed by parents, teachers, or administrators, and are graded by non-educators, should not hold such considerable power over the futures of our children. Why should taxpayer funds continue to pad the bottom line of corporations when students in underfunded districts desperately need reduced class sizes and school libraries, things that actually improve student outcomes? Even superintendents in well-funded districts like the West Chester Area School District are finding it fiscally draining to manage remediation for Keystone Exams.

Seeds for the opt-out movement were sown last year in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Parents are starting to realize something is very, very wrong-not with their child, or their child’s teacher, or their child’s school, but with a testing industry that profits when children are “failing.” Proponents of market-based reforms use test scores to rank and sort school “portfolios.” When organizations like the Philadelphia School Partnership want districts to “dump the losers,” test scores are their tools of choice.

Real education is not about high-performing seats. Our children are neither test scores nor data points. They are individuals. Standardized tests don’t create engaged citizens or contributing members of society. Rather, they create profits-profits for testing companies and those selling test-related hardware and software. Parents have the legal right to opt their children out of standardized testing. If done in sufficiently high numbers, we can begin to return our schools to places of creative teaching and learning.

Alison McDowell is a Philadelphia public school student and Chair of the Opt-Out Committee of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. Email her at

This Op Ed was published in the Philadelphia Daily News on August 9, 2015, but without links.