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District makes testing opt-out information more prominent

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

School officials have responded to demands that they be more explicit in letting parents know that they have a right to opt out their children from taking standardized tests.

The steps are small, yet opt-out activists say that they are significant.

For instance, when parents go to the District’s website and click on a prominent box that says "PSSA and Keystone Parent Information," they are taken to a page on which it says in two places that they can find information on opting out at the next link.

In addition, said Christopher Shaffer, principals and test coordinators in 174 District schools and five charters this year were given "explicit instructions on documents that schools are required to send home to parents."

Shaffer is the deputy chief for curriculum, instruction and assessment. He said the training "augmented our section on opt-out procedures so building test coordinators are familiar with that process and expectations."

The state Department of Education does not allow the District to disseminate any information on opting out other than a flyer with frequently asked questions that has been approved by the state, Shaffer said. So the web page that links to the state-approved flyer explains exactly where they can find opt-out information in the flyer. And, unlike the flyer itself, it uses the terminology "opt out."

The flyer has also been translated into eight languages other than English, and some schools have sent paper copies home with students.

Asked whether there has been more emphasis this year on letting parents know about opting out, Shaffer said, "Yes, but under the umbrella of more parent communication to our families, inclusive of everything that has to do with testing. … It’s not just opt-out, but the overall piece here is we’re striving to be better communicators."

In various parent meetings, District officials heard that it wasn’t easy to find information on testing, "and we took that to heart. … Some of the feedback was accurate."

The state-approved flyer explains that parents have the right to review the test in advance (if they sign a confidentiality agreement) and if they find it "in conflict with their religious belief," can request in writing that their child be "excused."

Under Pennsylvania law, religious objection is the only official reason that parents can give for opting out.

Kelley Collings is a member of the Caucus of Working Educators and a teacher at Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences. She and several colleagues made a concerted effort to tell parents at the school that they could opt out their children from testing, and they say that nearly 20 percent will do so when the tests are administered next month.

The teachers active in the movement have emphasized that they believe the tests are unfair, especially to special education students and English language learners, who are tested on their grade level even though by definition they are most likely behind.

As a result, the teachers were summoned to investigatory conferences with the principal, but District spokesman Fernando Gallard said it would be wrong to consider this a disciplinary action.

"Calling it a reprimand is not the appropriate description," he said.

Collings said that the flyers are “opaque.”

“They don’t say ‘opt-out’," she pointed out.

But she said what the District is doing is "still progress because that frees up the public dialogue around these issues.

“There are many levels of needles slowly moving. And we feel like this year builds for the future. As far as we’re concerned, this is huge progress for Philly.”

PSSA testing for grades 3-8 starts April 13. Keystone exams for high school students start May 13.

Laura Benshoff of NewsWorks contributed reporting for this story.

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