Time out for teachers who counseled to opt out of tests?

20150116-Feltonville-School-Arts-Sciences
The Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences on East Courtland Street.

After teachers at one Philadelphia public school let parents know they had a legal right to opt their children out of standardized exams, a remarkable thing happened:

One in five wrote letters telling the principal their child would not take the tests this year.

Now, several teachers at the Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences face possible disciplinary action.

Earlier this school year, the teachers held informational pickets before the school day and meetings at a local public library, handing out fliers and discussing with parents their right to have their children skip the state exams, the single biggest metric for judging schools.

The teachers have been summoned to investigatory conferences this week, a district spokesman confirmed.

"We don't know if the district will take action, but we want to make sure we have all the facts," Fernando Gallard, the district spokesman, said. "We don't know if it was made clear to the parents that this represents the personal views of the teachers, not the School District of Philadelphia or the principal. That's very important to us."

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said he did not believe the teachers violated any district policy.

"Parents have a right to opt their children out of the tests, and teachers have a right to communicate with parents," said Jordan, who has spoken against what he contends is an overreliance on standardized testing in education. "I wonder whether this is an effort to have a chilling effect on the interactions that teachers have with parents."

The teachers who acted did so after a year's worth of planning and coordination with groups around the city and the country, said Amy Roat, a Feltonville teacher who believes that standardized tests are narrowing curriculum and harming students.

Virtually none of the parents at the Feltonville middle school - where 20 percent of students are English-language learners and 17 percent receive special education services - knew they had the right to have their children opt out of the tests.

"I just felt that it was unethical to hold that back," said Roat, who teaches English-language learners.

Kelley Collings, another Feltonville teacher, said she was not surprised that she and other teachers face possible disciplinary action. The educators are following a playbook written by teachers and parents in cities where opt-out movements have taken hold.

"This is pretty typical of a district response," said Collings, who along with Roat is a member of the Caucus of Working Educators, a group of teachers and supporters. "It's actually energized me. I feel more emboldened now, and more grounded in this as a moral fight."

Parent Belinda Brown said she was grateful for the information passed along by Collings and others.

Brown, who has a sixth-grade daughter and eighth-grade son at Feltonville, said she had no idea she could simply tell school officials her children would not take a test that she says is not good for them.

"I understand my children's frustration at taking the test," she said. "I don't think it's right to base anything off the scores. I definitely agree with the movement."

The movement appears to be gaining steam.

City Council held hearings on standardized testing late last year, and three Council members recently came out in favor of the Feltonville parents who opted their children out of the test.

Maria Quiñones Sánchez, Jannie L. Blackwell, and Mark Squilla all said they applauded the move.

"Overreliance on standardized testing disproportionately harms our most vulnerable students," said Quiñones Sánchez, who decried an "obsession" with standardized exams.

The Council members also called on the School District to officially request a waiver from the state Department of Education to allow its students to opt out of the Keystone Exams.

Gallard, the school spokesman, said that the district would "follow the rules and regulations put forward by the Pennsylvania Department of Education."

 


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