Parents, students slam high-stakes testing at opt-out forum

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

Among the lineup of speakers at a forum on high-stakes testing Thursday night, two young people stepped forward to share firsthand knowledge of the toll that the state’s annual standardized assessments can take on learning in the classroom and life beyond high school.

“My mom opted me out,” said Guillermo Santos, a 6th grader at Masterman, facing a room of 90 to 100 educators, parents, and students crowded into a conference room at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.

He described how “all the art, all the posters, all the beautiful things” on the walls of classrooms and hallways are covered up during the testing period in April. “I remember the PSSAs,” he said gravely. Often among the first to finish, he could not leave the room until the last child turned in the test, he recalled. “We would have to sit there in complete silence for hours and hours.”

Then, Guillermo, a slight, bespectacled child, choked up. His mother, Cheri Honkala, stepped forward. She told the audience that the approach of the tests stirred anxiety in her son.

“We should applaud the kids who are opting out,” said Honkala, an anti-poverty advocate and founder of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign. “They are courageous and they are starting a movement.”

Ruby Anderson, a senior at Science Leadership Academy in Center City and a member of the Philadelphia Student Union, said the Keystone exams, taken in high school, harm students’ chances of winning a high school diploma — the essential first step, she said, to finding a career that will lead to economic security.

“These tests set us up for failure,” Anderson said, and they also eat up classroom time with test prep and test taking. “We are more than just test scores.”

The event was billed as informational, with parents given a chance to examine sample test questions. But the testimonies of these two students, along with teachers and parents, drew the greatest response, with frequent finger-snapping and applause.

The opt-out movement has been growing across Pennsylvania and the country. In Philadelphia, the Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences has been at the eye of the storm. Teachers at the middle school report that parents of at least 90 children, or 17 percent of the school’s students, have signed letters refusing to have their children take the PSSAs, set for April.

The sponsors of the event were the Caucus of Working Educators, Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, Teacher Action Group, Philadelphia Student Union, Parents United for Public Education, and ACTION United.

Participants also heard from City Councilman Mark Squilla, who told the room he was “a big advocate” of the opt-out movement. “I believe testing should be part of the curriculum, but it is not the only measure” of student or school success, Squilla said. He lamented the lost instructional time and the high costs of test administration and test-preparation materials.

Helen Gym, a candidate for City Council and a co-founder of Parents United, also attended.

Tiffany Bhavnani, a teacher of English language learners at Furness High School, decried requirements that students who have recently immigrated to the United States take the PSSAs when they speak, read, and comprehend very little English.

What the tests don’t reveal, she said, are the strengths that students bring with them to this country, like “adaptability, courage, resilience.”

Bhavnani denounced the “weeks of wasted class time” and called on parents to “refuse to have your children labeled basic or below basic with no benefit to them.”

Last week, schools Superintendent William Hite said, in response to questions asked at a School Reform Commission meeting, that the District was preparing handouts for parents about the upcoming assessments. The handouts will include information on steps that parents can take to opt their children out of taking the standardized tests.