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Students who are still learning English fuel Philly opt-out movement

Submitted On: Friday, March 20, 2015

Analyst: Hower, Aileen

Excerpted from Laura Benshoff for NewsWorks on Mar 11, 2015

In 2014, Pennsylvania parents opted about 100 kids out of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSAs. This year, that many are opting out of tests just at the Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences, a middle school in North Philadelphia.

In some cases, parents and teachers object to the tests for philosophical or political reasons. But many Feltonville parents have a more immediate concern: their kids can't understand them.

Nomar Rodriguez, is one of these parents. Rodriguez and his family moved to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico in 2013. Although his three sons — Nomar, Jomar and Keven — took some English classes in Puerto Rico, they are now all in English language learner (ELL) classes.

ELL students, by definition, do not perform at grade level. But in Pennsylvania, those students, along with special education students, are evaluated at grade level for statewide standardized tests.

Vici Smith, an English Language teacher at Feltonville, said that for that reason, the tests don't give her valuable feedback for teaching students during the school year. "You know they're not on level. What else do you need to know?"

Smith and other teachers at Feltonville have been vocal about parents' right to opt out under Pennsylvania law, sending letters home with students and holding meetings. Philadelphia School District officials chastised those teachers, but Rodriguez said, through an interpreter, that he did not feel coerced into pulling his three sons out of testing.

"What they say about the teachers, it's completely false," he said. "The standardized tests are in English, therefore the tests are an obstacle for them. You know the kids have talents, but they can't show that on the tests. It's not fair."

But he added, "If the tests were in Spanish, I would let them take it."

Opt-out rising

Rodriguez and the parents in Feltonville are joining a growing opt-out movement across the country. It includes liberals, libertarians, and conservatives, who take issue with standardized testing for a variety of reasons.

Some parents in wealthy New Jersey suburbs who object to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests believe that those standards are too rigid and that they waste time and money.

In Philadelphia, the opt-out movement mingles with existing debates about school funding and poverty in a district with a lot of high-needs students.

Teachers like Smith have also said that the tests are demoralizing for students. In times of budget scarcity, low test scores can put schools on the top of the District's list of schools to close or turn into charters.

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