This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In a sign that the movement to opt out of testing is gaining traction, the Philadelphia City Council Education Committee on Wednesday heard parents, teachers, and education advocates decry state and federal officials’ emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing.
"Standardized tests negatively impact students living in poverty, English language learners, and children with special needs, of which Philadelphia has many," said Alison McDowell, a District parent who has led Philadelphia’s opt-out movement and helped organize the hearing with Councilman Mark Squilla.
Of particular concern to the crowd gathered in Council chambers is the requirement that, beginning with the Class of 2017, Pennsylvania’s students must pass Keystone exams in literature, Algebra I and biology to graduate from high school.
This could have a profound effect on families, not just in Philadelphia, but statewide; recent data show that many students are not scoring at a proficient level on the exams, especially biology.
"What is the value of this test? Is this test an adequate tool? We paid all this money for it. Do we really think half the students in the state who are passing their courses should not get to graduate?" said McDowell.
"It’s a colossal waste of classroom time," said Robin Roberts, a District parent who opted out of testing last year, instead using the days to take her children to the city’s museums.
If students can’t pass the Keystone exam after two attempts, they can elect to complete a project assignment to be overseen by their teachers and then graded by other teachers from outside districts.
Families can choose to exempt their children from state testing on religious or philosophical grounds. If 5 percent of students within a district opt out of the tests, a district’s test score results would be nullified.
State Rep. Mike Tobash, R-Berks, testified that the Keystone graduation requirement should be decided at the local level.
"We believe that school districts should have more autonomy," said Tobash. "They should be given the option."
He added that the tests themselves (not the graduation requirement) are federally mandated through the No Child Left Behind law.
Tobash confirmed that it cost the state $65 million to $80 million to develop and implement the three existing Keystone exams. The state is planning to develop two more, in civics and writing.
Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, submitted testimony saying that the opt-out movement has "inherent wisdom," based on the idea that schools often base instruction on "test prep rather than holistic instruction."