This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
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This spring, Tonya Bah sent a letter to parents with children at Wagner Middle School in West Oak Lane, where her daughter Fulani is in the 8th grade.
In the letter, she shared why she didn’t think standardized tests helped students at Wagner and explained how parents could opt their children out of taking the tests, using the School District of Philadelphia’s protocol.
"If enough of us refuse the tests," Bah wrote, "the message to the state will be clear: We will not accept the label of failure for our students, for our schools."
In all, 171 Wagner parents responded to the letter, pulling about a third of the students in the school out of statewide standardized tests called the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSAs.
Bah has fraternal twins in the 8th grade. Her daughter is an A student, bound for Carver High School of Engineering & Science next year. Her son, Keiba, who has verbal and physical disabilities, attends Widener Memorial, a public school for students with disabilities.
She said that seeing how different her kids’ needs are opened her eyes to the unfairness of testing that doesn’t drive instruction.
"I want there to be a follow-through that tells them where they got it wrong and why they missed it," said Bah. "You take a spelling test, and you get one wrong, you want to know what word you got wrong."
Bah is one of a group of parents and advocates at the forefront of the "opt-out movement," a grassroots organizing effort pushing back against testing that they say eats up instruction time and can be harmful to students.
The movement has made headlines nationally, as parents in New York, New Jersey and Oregon pulled their children out of testing in unprecedented numbers.
This is the first year of concerted opt-out organizing in Philadelphia, and it shows in the number of opt-outs. Districtwide, 595 chose not to take the PSSAs, and 186 sat out the Keystone exams, a suite of three tests that will become part of students’ graduation requirements in 2017.
Many schools had high concentrations of students opting out. Some students also opted out of both exams, so there may be double-counting, according to Chris Shaffer, the District’s deputy chief of curriculum, instruction and assessment.
He said that this year’s opt-outs were considerably more than in years past. "We had approximately 20 opt-outs last year," he said.