Nancy Dillow recalls two stressed out and unhappy sons during certain periods of time when they were in elementary school. It was the daunting task of preparing for and taking the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) standardized tests.
Not only did her sons, who are now seventh and eighth graders in the Hempfield School District in Lancaster County, exhibit the understandable anxiety, but she and her husband were equally frustrated.
“In elementary school, it was a cause of great anxiety for both of them,” Dillow says. “They felt so much pressure put on them from the school. They definitely felt heat on them that performance was important. I could see it more in my older son because he’s one of the better performers, so he felt like he had to perform at a high level.”
Dillow and her husband were concerned about the stress level, but their frustration was from another perspective.
“I do get frustrated because I do feel that the schools teach to the exam,” Dillow says. “I see what the students are not getting in the classroom and it’s frustrating to me. My husband and I are college-educated, and we’ve both taught our sons some things that they are not learning in the classroom.”
The PSSAs, which enable Pennsylvania to meet federal and state requirements in addition to helping educators inform instructional practices, are given to students in public schools in grades 3-8 in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics in April, with additional tests in science in grades 4 and 8. The PSSA’s older siblings, the Keystone Exams, are given to students in high school (and middle school if a seventh or eighth grader is already enrolled in a Keystone course). These exams are end-of-course standardized tests designed to assess a student’s knowledge in Algebra I, Biology and Literature.
In order to graduate from high school, students have to pass their Keystone Exams in addition to their other academic requirements. A year ago, Governor Tom Wolf signed legislation that delayed this requirement until the 2018-19 academic year. But because the Keystones are administered at the end of a specific course while the material is still fresh, there has been no pause in students taking the tests.
The PSSAs take place an hour a day over the course of two weeks each spring. Some parents formally request that their child opt out of the standardized tests. The State Department of Education has tracked the number of parent requests for opt-outs since 2010; in Central Pennsylvania, 49 opt-out requests were made that year. That number increased tenfold within four years; by 2014, the most recent year data is available, nearly 500 such requests were filed. That year, Lancaster County had the greatest number of opt-out requests — 222 — of the five counties of Central Pennsylvania; Dauphin County had the second highest with 102.
Laura Bowser has two daughters at Manheim Township High School in Lancaster County. When they were in middle school, she opted them out of the PSSAs. “We were told they would not be punished, and we didn’t want any retribution,” she says. “It was nothing against the school or the teachers.
“There was a lot of frustration with the amount of time that their school day was spent working on PSSA preparedness,” Bowser continues. “It felt like they were being programmed to be test takers instead of creative thinkers. They were pretty stressed out and bored. It was very regimented, and the students could sense the stress of the teachers. The teachers are under a lot of pressure for their students to do well, and that stress is contagious. It wasn’t a good learning environment.”
Bowser says she knew that she could opt her daughters out of the PSSAs with no penalty. Her daughters were given alternative activities to do while their classmates were taking the exams. A child’s grade level and school help guide what those alternative activities are.
“We had lots of discussions with our daughters about it,” Bowser says. “We wanted to make sure it was their choice, too. My younger daughter was a little nervous at first. She didn’t know if her teachers would be mad at her, or if she’d be the only one. She was happy after the fact. There were plenty of other kids who opted out the same year.”
The Keystone Exams also have an opt-out option; however, because the stakes are higher, there is an alternative project that a student will be required to complete in place of the exam. Parents are thus much more apprehensive about requesting an opt-out. According to state data, virtually no parent requests were made for 11th graders.
Bowser isn’t sure what they’ll do about the Keystone Exams. Her oldest daughter is a junior, so the Keystone mandate won’t have an effect on her. She’s not so sure about her younger daughter, who’s a freshman.
“There are a lot of unknowns with the Keystone Exams,” Bowser says. “We are concerned about opting out because we don’t know what this other project is that they will have to complete. Will it mess up her chances of applying and getting into college? There’s more at stake so we will have to be careful with our choices.”
David F. Salter is a freelance writer based in York and a father of three daughters. He regularly covers education matters for Central Penn Parent.