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.

APPS Donates Settlement Money to Student Programs


Advocacy Organization Donates Settlement Money to Student Programs

August 10, 2015

Members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools have begun to donate the funds received from a settlement reached last month with the SRC, the School District of Philadelphia and the City of Philadelphia. Three APPS members–Ilene, Poses, Barbara Dowdall, and Lisa Haver, all retired teachers–filed suit in federal court after school district security and Philadelphia police confiscated their signs at the February 2015 SRC meeting. Ms. Poses incurred minor injuries when she was dragged from school district headquarters by Philadelphia police officers because she refused to remove the sign she was wearing.

All of the plaintiffs have agreed to donate the settlement money, approximately $21, 000, to student programs and to continue the advocacy work of the Alliance. None will benefit personally from the settlement, which was paid completely from the city’s litigation fund.

The three APPS members have donated  a total of $6500.00 to support student programs at Philadelphia Young Playwrights, History Hunters, the Arden Theater, the Teachers Institute of Philadelphia (TIP), Kelly Green (a student-run vegetable garden at John B. Kelly School), the Arden Theater, and the Wissahickon Boys and Girls Club.

A $1000.00 donation was also made to the Philadelphia Student Union, whose video of the assault was instrumental in reaching the settlement. Hiram River, PSU Executive Director, said, “We are very grateful to APPS for this generous donation and for their ongoing advocacy on behalf of the students of Philadelphia.”

Donations will be given to additional student programs and organizations in the coming months.

SRC and City Settle First Amendment Complaint with Education Activists

Ilene Poses removal

For Immediate Release                                June 3, 2015

SRC and City Settle First Amendment Complaint with Education Activists

Three former Philadelphia teachers have agreed to a settlement in their civil rights lawsuit against the School Reform Commission, former SRC Chair Bill Green, the City of Philadelphia and other parties for violating their constitutional rights during a February SRC meeting.

Ilene Poses, Barbara Dowdall and Lisa Haver, who are all members of the grass-roots advocacy group Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, filed suit in federal court in March. Signs were confiscated from the three during the meeting in which the SRC voted on thirty-nine applications for new charters. Poses was also accosted by Philadelphia police and forcibly removed from the building when she refused to remove the sign she was wearing around her neck. APPS members regularly attend SRC meetings and frequently give public testimony on school issues.

As part of the settlement agreement, the SRC released a statement in which it reaffirmed the rights of the public to “…wear clothing and/or to carry signs that display viewpoints on issues of public concern.”

Commissioner Farah Jiminez, at a subsequent meeting, apologized for the SRC’s actions.

Paul Messing, attorney for the plaintiffs, said, “The settlement makes clear that there are consequences for violating the fundamental First Amendment rights of the public and that victims must be compensated.”

Nominal damages will be paid out of the city’s litigation fund. All three plaintiffs have said that they will not personally benefit from the financial settlement.  “We will be depositing all of the settlement money into a fund which will enable us to support programs for students and continue our advocacy work for public schools in Philadelphia”, Dowdall said.

School Police Violently Remove Woman With Sign: Abolish the SRC
Philadelphia Student Union video – February 18, 2015

Lawsuit: SRC violated former teachers’ right
Philadelphia Daily News – March 12, 2015