Energized by the growing momentum of the standardized testing Opt-out movement in Philadelphia, the crowd at the Free Library on Thursday night was considerable. Organizers were originally expecting 40 people to attend the “Test-in,” but the event drew almost 75.
Organized by education groups from across the city, the Test-in encouraged parents, teachers, students, and community members to experience the PSSA and Keystone exams firsthand.
One group sat taking an 8th grade PSSA Reading Exam Their passage consisted of a four page Horatio Alger Jr. story about a boat trip. Readers encountered nautical vocabulary such as: bow, stern, fern, birch bark and gunwale. Test-takers were required to determine how the ‘plot was advanced’ by a passage in the story, what the author’s intended effect was, and the meaning of vocabulary words such as ‘donned.’
After having a go at test-taking, the crowd heard from speakers representing several different constituencies: teachers, parents, students, advocates and politicians. City Councilman Mark Squilla and At-large City Council Candidate Helen Gym spoke briefly. Squilla questioned the large expenses that the city incurs in the name of testing, while Gym rallied the crowd around the notion of high-stakes testing as “a political fight.”
Some of the most poignant voices came not from high-profile speakers, but from students directly affected by testing. Masterman sixth grader Guillermo Santos shared his anxiety and sadness over the PSSA and his frustration that even though his mother has opted him out of the test, he still has to walk the halls with covered up artwork and sit through weeks of test preparation.
Ruby Anderson, a senior at Science Leadership Academy and member of the Philadelphia Student Union, decried the high-stakes Keystone Exam as act of violence against students. Anderson spoke passionately about the standardization of education that made her feel “like a robot, not fully human… a test cannot define me, my teachers, my school, or my community.”
Despite the powerful speakers, the goals for the night reached beyond awareness. Organizers urged participants to brainstorm action steps that each participant could take to harness the momentum of the movement. Options ranged from, “I will talk with a parent or a teacher at my school” to “I will host a testing informational meeting at my house.” There was a robust dialogue as groups discussed ideas, options, and strategies for moving forward.
8th grade charter school teacher, Janene Hasan, felt inspired by the event. “I’ve been teaching for ten years, and I’ve only seen the influence of the testing culture grow stronger and stronger while the curriculum grows narrower and narrower. When I learned about [the opt-out actions at] Feltonville, it gave me hope that education really can change. Now I feel like I’m empowered because I’m not alone.”
The Test-in was organized through a joint effort of the Caucus of Working Educators, Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, Teacher Action Group, Philadelphia Student Union, Parents United for Public Education, and Action United.