My Remarks to the Hempfield School Board

First, let me thank you for serving our community as school board members. I have never been a school board member and so I don’t assume to understand the impact your service has on areas of your life that none of us will see. Thank you especially for those unseen sacrifices each of you make. 

Last year, a local superintendent said the opt out movement is insignificant unless the majority of parents do it. I take issue with this statement because it excuses him from having any responsibility to stop something (i.e., high-stakes standardized testing) that has created a culture of schooling that is actually detrimental to authentic learning.

I understand that districts are mandated to give tests. However, district school boards and administrators are not prevented from recommending that parents opt out and/or share information with parents in a way that encourages rather than discourages opting out. Jim Scanlin, Superintendent of West Chester Area School District, sent a letter to parents last spring that included the following,

“Teachers have literally sent me hundreds of examples of how students are worried, anxious, and depressed. The rules for taking these exams are crazy, as well…The last three weeks our schools have looked more like prisons than educational institutions…There is no research to support that any of these test environments are helpful, supportive, or represent good pedagogy.”

He is correct. And he is speaking out. He still has his job, the district still has funding, and the teachers feel heard and supported by their administration. The public trusts the school district because its leadership advocates for conditions of learning that are best for children and call foul on the ludicrous conditions caused by the high-stakes nature of testing.

 The New Salem/Wendell School Committee recently passed a resolution encouraging all parents in their district to opt their children out of state-mandated tests. I brought a copy of that resolution for each of you. The board took action based on what they knew was happening in their schools. They asked for parents to partner with them, and didn’t expect parents to act on the fine print of a Q&A document from the Department of Education.

As you may know, I co-founded Lancaster County Opt Out in 2014 and have, in the last two years, been mobilizing parents by informing them about both the perils of standardized tests and their rights as parents to refuse the test. Some feel completely betrayed by the leadership of their school districts for not providing this information first. Their children come home believing that they are required to take the test (which isn’t true) and tell tales of all sorts of “rewards” (I call them bribes) they receive once the tests are over.

We administer tests that have such little value that we have to bribe students to take them and aren’t overly forthcoming about their choice not to take the tests. The students aren’t offered the opportunity to consent, and they aren’t the ones benefitting from the test. I fear we are committing abuse. You may feel that is an extreme comparison, but a testing company with a $250 million dollar contract is benefitting from unconsenting children, and are benefitting more than any of us from this testing ridiculousness.

I know from a recent meeting I attended that the board is trying to engage the public in conversation about the budget shortfall. I recommend that one of the primary ways of engaging the public is taking heroic action and standing up for the rights of students and their parents. To gain community trust, be courageous, thoughtful, and transparent. Call the system out for what it’s doing to children, how it’s oppressing teachers, and strangling school boards. I beg you to lead our community not just by making financial decisions, but also by doing the moral and ethical work that is inherent in representing thousands of precious children.