State 'very concerned' about reports of too much PSSA prep

Following up on my story earlier this week about a small but growing protest movement of parents opting their kids out of Pennsylvania's standardized PSSA tests, an official said the state Department of Education is "very concerned" about anecdotal reports of too much test prep and not enough conventional learning in the weeks leading up to the exams.

But Timothy Eller, the spokesman for the state Department of Education, also gave a full-throated defense of the high-stakes test that the state uses to evaluate which schools are rated as "failing" and will soon be used to grade teacher performance. Indeed, he compared the experience to an annual physical exam.

"This is a 'physical' of how students are learning, of how the state standards are being taught and of a school's teachers," Eller said.

Some parents and education activists in Philadelphia and elsewhere are rallying behind a national movement to opt their children out of the tests -- complaining of too much "teaching to the test," unnecessary student stress, and that the tests are being used to justify a corporate reform agenda aimed at closing neighborhood schools and weakening teacher influence.

Eller acknowledged that the Education Department is aware of anecdotal reports about schools spending weeks focused solely on test preparation "and we're very concerned if they're devoting that much time of their curriculum." He explained that schools that teach an everyday curriculum in line with state requirements shouldn't have to devote extra time drilling for the tests.

He also confirmed that the department is enacting out a rule change in July that will still allow parents to opt out their kids for religious reasons -- a provision that activists have interpreted broadly -- but will now require them to express their objection in writing. Eller said the change is not intended to discourage parents from opting out but merely to help officials improve future tests.