Opt Out 101: For Parents and Students of the Philadelphia School District


Need an opt out letter template?

Click HERE for the religious Opt Out letter.

Click HERE for the updated 2016 testing refusal letter (Why refuse the test vs. Opt Out? See below!)

Presiona AQUÍ para el formulario de rechazar los exámenes en Español // Click HERE for the Spanish 2016 testing refusal letter

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What tests are we talking about?

PSSAs and Keystone Exams are the two types of end-of-year, high-stakes standardized tests administered by the Philadelphia School District. Scores from these tests are used by the state and federal government for accountability purposes. Last year's PSSA had a new format and was aligned to "rigorous" PA-Core standards. Cut scores were set so that many students across the state received significantly lower scores. 

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Can opting out hurt my child's school?

Your child's school cannot be penalized for parents choosing to exercise their legal right to opt out. The School Performance Profile used by the state to evaluate schools does NOT factor in PSSA or Keystone participation rates. Additionally, 80% of the points awarded in the SPP are evenly split between "achievement" and "growth" ensuring that no school will be successful in both. This means even high-peforming schools can't do well, because they are unlikely to meet their "growth" targets. Since the passage of the ESSA, there have been rumblings by the federal government about required participation rates, but there is no evidence indicating Title 1 funds would be withheld or re-directed anytime soon. Plus, such penalties would be levied at states, not individual schools. You can read more about this at Fairtest.org.

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When do the PSSAs start this year?

This spring PSSAs will be given to students in grades 3-8 starting on April 11th, with make-up testing concluding on May 6. Click here for the full PSSA assessment calendar. All students in these grades are given Reading and Math PSSAs, unless a student has an IEP and "no standardized testing" has been written into it.  If your child takes the alternative PASA test, the opt out process is the same as for the PSSA. Additionally, Science PSSAs are administered to students in grades 4 and 8. Middle school students enrolled in Algebra 1 may also be given a Keystone Exam in May. By law, parents can opt out or refuse PSSA testing for their children. Be advised that some magnet and special admission high schools look at PSSAs scores as part of their application progress. For this reason, if your child is currently enrolled in Grades 3 or 7, you may want to contact the schools to which you wish to apply before making a decision about whether to opt out or refuse testing this year.

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How are the Keystone Exams different?

Pennsylvania law requires Biology, English, and Algebra Keystone Exams be administered to high school students. In some cases Algebra Keystones are administered to middle school students upon completion of that course.This winter, Governor Wolf signed into law a two-year delay in using the Keystone Exams as a graduation requirement. As a result, high school students who are scheduled to graduate in 2017 or 2018 (current juniors and sophomores) are NOT required to pass all three exams in order to receive a diploma. If you opt out your child who is a junior or sophomore on track to graduate, he/she cannot be denied a diploma nor will he/she be required to successfully complete the alternative Project Based Assessment (PBA).  

However, as it now stands, students scheduled to graduate in 2019 (freshmen) and all younger students are still required to pass the three exams with a score of proficient or advanced in order to receive a diploma.  You should know that over half the students in the state have failed at least one Keystone Exam. If these younger students do not pass the exam after two attempts, they will be required to complete a very long online exam (PBA) that could take up to a semester to complete. At present there isn't any dedicated funding to administer or grade PBAs. Many hope that the graduation requirement will be eliminated entirely, but that outcome is uncertain. The next administration of Keystone Exams will take place from May 16-27

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So what is the actual process?

Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states where the right of parents to opt their children out of state-mandated testing is written into law. That right is described in 022 PA Code 4.4. This law says that you may only opt out on religious grounds. However, you do NOT need to offer any proof of religion or discuss anything about your religion or how it relates to testing, nor can school officials ask. 

Religious Opt Out:

1. Alert your child's school as soon as possible that you plan to opt him/her out of PSSA or Keystone testing. Be sure they have contact information for you, so that they can contact you about setting up a time to review the test.

2. Two weeks before the test is to be administered, tests arrive in schools. The school will contact you for a time to do the "review" before testing starts. They are expected to work with you to find a convenient time for you to do this.

3. When you come in to do the review, you will be asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. Go ahead and sign it.

4. You will then review each test. You can take as much or as little time as you like doing this.

5. After you are done with the review, send a confirmation email to Dr. Hite at hite@philasd.org  with a cc to your child's principal stating that: as the parent of child X, you are opting him/her out of the PSSAs/Keystones on religious grounds having reviewed the tests on X date. Keep a copy for your records.

6. It's that simple. Again, no one can ask you for any specifics about the test or your religion. To do so would compromise the confidentiality agreement you sign, and they are not allowed to know the content of the test. 

Be advised that even if your child has started a portion of the test, say the Reading portion, they can opt out of the Math portion and/or Science portion. There is no opt out deadline. The school is required to provide alternative educational activities for your child during testing and cannot penalize your child for your decision. A template letter for the religious opt out is provided HERE

Test Refusal: 

The second way your child can receive a "no score" is to refuse for them in advance. Unlike the religious opt out, refusal does not require you to come in to review the test. Refusal is not part of PA Law, but is instead part of the assessment process described by the PA Department of Education in the materials it shares with each school's testing coordinator. The PA testing coordinators'  handbooks state that if for some reason a student refuses to take the exam, it should be coded as "other."  This code is registered on the front of the child's booklet.  The outcome is the same as parental opt out on religious grounds. In both cases the test is coded as a "do not score." In both cases the child simply does not receive a score. They do NOT receive a zero, and there is no penalty to the school or teacher.

The Office of Assessment of the School District of Philadelphia recognized the right of parents to refuse testing in advance through written request last spring. The District, however, does need to submit written documentation to the state proving that you do not want your child taking the standardized tests. Click HERE for a simple form you can use to refuse on behalf of your child. The contact information for the District's Office of Assessment is on the bottom of the form if school staff have any questions about the refusal process.

Click HERE for a screenshot from the Testing Coordinators' Handbook from this year's winter Keystone Exam administration that shows the language provided to schools about both the religious opt out and the refusal process.

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Questions? Ideas? Want to get involved and help other parents and students fight back against high stakes testing? Like the Opt Out Philly Facebook Page or email OptOutPhilly@gmail.com.

Consider joining Pennsylvania - Opt Out of Standardized Testing PA for support and discussion of opt-out-related issues.


"Before 2011 We Were Able to Get Our Jobs Done": Two Philly Nurses Explain the Impact of Budget Cuts

"Long before the draconian budget cuts we nurses commiserated about the responsibility we felt in adequately addressing the mandated professional duties enumerated by my colleague earlier today. We had professional meetings several times a year in which we shared best practices, honed our skills, and supported one another in our difficult but rewarding jobs serving Philadelphia's children. Our passion for this work is unmatched.

But, let me be abundantly clear here. Before 2011 we were able to get our job done.

Before 2011 our quality, Philadelphia's school health program was nationally recognized. In fact, prior to the 2011 budget cuts school nurses were rarely in the news precisely because adequate, well functioning school nurse services did not constitute a newsworthy topic." -Eileen Duffey

This past Thusday, February 18th, two of Philadelphia's Certified School Nurses testified at City Council's first State-of-the-Schools Hearing on the impact of budget cuts on Philly's children. Their testimony can be found below. They were joined by inspiring testimony from Philly's counselors, as well as many other education leaders

Peg Devine and Eileen Duffey are both running on the Caucus of Working Educators Slate for PFT Leadership


Read more

PA Supreme Court Decision is Reminder of the Need for Strong Organizing


(Educators and families from Cooke, Huey, and Wister fight back against their schools being turned into charters.) 

We applaud last night’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision limiting the powers of the School Reform Commission. The ruling offers a breath of relief to members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, who no longer have to worry about our contract being unilaterally cancelled by the School District of Philadelphia. It also creates the opportunity to finally address years of unlawful hiring practices, ignoring seniority, and the back pay we deserve after years of missed step increases.

However, the ruling also highlights the need for strong organizing —and a strong union— to fight back against the continued assault on public education.

While the ruling potentially puts us back on the path to negotiate a contract, it also opens the door for uncapped charter school expansion. With the District on the hook to pay for it, this will channel further funds away from district schools to charter operators, and threatens the elimination of school staff, services, and buildings— when we are already operating with deeply inadequate staffing and resources.

How soon will this happen? The same night of the court ruling, the SRC approved three new charter school proposals for 2,500 students, putting approximately 100 PFT positions at risk. At this rate, how many of our union brothers and sisters will be left to enjoy the next contract we win?

Our union must act to reverse the SRC’s financing of the charter school industry before it swallows up our public school system. This can only happen by working alongside parents and communities to proactively invest in and fight for our public schools, instead of watching as more and more schools are closed or turned over to charter operators.

We must be a clear voice heard in Harrisburg advocating for the schools Philly students, parents, and educators deserve. And we must make sure the politicians who represent our members and schools —many of whom advocated in favor of charter schools at the February 16 SRC meeting— know that there are political consequences to their giveaway of our schools.

We need a union that can fight in court, in our neighborhoods, and in the streets with equal force. Alongside news of the failure of Friedrichs, the labor movement has a new opportunity to focus on deep organizing. As the rank and file caucus of the PFT, we remain committed to this fight on all fronts.



What's the difference between the CB Team and WE?

Many PFT Members have been asking how the PFT will look different under Working Educators. Contract decisions, term limits, communication with members, inclusive leadership, and more-- here's how WE will make sure that the best days of our union ahead of us, not behind us.

Download the shareable PDF of this flyer here.



How WE Will Lead: Pamela Roy, Treasurer

How will Working Educators lead the PFT? Meet all 9 officer candidates for yourself, learn their vision for the future of our union, and find out why they are running for office in the 2016 PFT elections.

Here's Working Educators Candidate for Treasurer, Pamela Roy:

Before becoming part of Working Educators, I had never been asked by anyone in the PFT leadership to give my ideas. I had never been asked to do anything besides show up at a rally a few times, and I really wanted to do more.

As School District of Philadelphia employees, we have been beaten down for so long that we no longer know what's possible. I think that our realm of possibility has shrunk around us. So much more is possible for ourselves as workers, for our students, and for our city.

Pamela.jpgPAMELA ROY has been a teacher for nine years, at Hopkinson, Edwin Vare, Roberto Clemente, and now Mifflin. She holds certificates in Elementary Education, Middle Years Science, and Biology. Pamela holds a masters degree in science. She is a Public Youth Forum Debate coach in the middle school league, Need in Deed experienced network member, member of Philly Core Leaders, and a board member for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Chapter of Americans for Democratic Action.


Pamela in the news:

Salon: "10,000 smart, committed teachers can change the world"- A group of working Philadelphia teachers is looking to upset the status quo of the teachers union

Labor Notes: Philly Teachers Go For It

The Notebook: Caucus of Working Educators Reveal Slate for Union Election

The Notebook: Teachers Spent Week in Work-to-Rule Protest

Working Educators: How to Arrange a Work-to-Rule Campaign: One School's Story

Philadelphia Public Record: Pols on the Street

Teachers Lead Philly: Teachers Prepare to Vote

Check out our In The Press page for many more stories about Pam and Working Educators!



How WE Will Lead: Tasha Russell, Associate Secretary

How will Working Educators lead the PFT? Meet all 9 officer candidates for yourself, learn their vision for the future of our union, and find out why they are running for office in the 2016 PFT elections.

Here's Working Educators Candidate for Associate Secretary, Tasha Russell:

My message for every member of the PFT is that when you receive your ballots on February 4th, you vote for WE. Because your voice matters.  

Tasha.jpgTASHA RUSSELL has been teaching in the school district for 20 years. She has taught at Kinsey Elementary, Stetson Middle School, Lowell Elementary, Roosevelt Middle School, and currently Wagner Middle School. She currently holds certifications in Physically and Mentally Handicapped, BCIT (Technology), and Educational Administration. ALong with being a member of the Caucus of Working Educators. she is involved with the Philadelphia Writing Project,  and Teachers Lead Philly.


Tasha in the news:

Examiner: Why is race important to the Caucus of Working Educators?

Philly Tribune: New Crop of Teacher Union Leaders Could Change Old Ways

Newsworks: 'Working educators' caucus challenges status quo in Philadelphia teachers union

Northeast Times: Taking a Stand: The Caucus of Working Educators mounts a historic challenge to the longtime leadership of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

The Notebook: Caucus of Working Educators Reveal Slate for Union Election

Raging Chicken Press: Is Social Justice Unionism Going to Save Public Education in Philadelphia?

Check out our In The Press page for many more stories about Tasha and Working Educators! 



Why I switched from CB to WE

By Peg Devine RN CSN, Lincoln High SchoolIMG_0967.JPG

At-Large Executive Board Candidate on the WE Slate

I have been an active member of the PFT since I was hired as a nurse in 1992. In 2009, I was asked by Jerry Jordan to serve on the PFT Executive Board.

For those who don’t know -- and most members have no idea -- the PFT Executive Board (EB) usually meets twice a month. During the meeting the board votes on PFT business including approving political endorsements, campaign donations, and treasurer reports. We hear a President’s report at every meeting including information about national educational and political concerns.

When I agreed to become an EB member, it was my hope to serve as the voice of my fellow nurses and other non-teaching professional PFT members. Unfortunately, as the years went on, it became clear to me that these Executive Board meetings are actually the opposite of what a representative democracy should be.

Here's a few illustrative examples: 

Read more

How WE Will Lead: Ismael Jimenez, VP of High Schools

How will Working Educators lead the PFT? Meet all 9 officer candidates for yourself, learn their vision for the future of our union, and find out why they are running for office in the 2016 PFT elections.

Here's Working Educators Candidate for Vice President of High Schools, Ismael Jimenez:

"There is a necessity for our union to the the strong force that it should be. With the numbers that we represent as the largest public union in Philadelphia, and the second largest in the state, there's no reason our power isn't being utilized. And that inspires me, because there's no better time than now."

Ismael.jpgISMAEL JIMENEZ has worked with students ranging from preschool to high school  in Philadelphia for 10 years.  Ismael worked as a Secondary Social Studies teacher at Germantown High School until it was closed. Currently, he teaches African-American History at Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School. He has been an active member of the building committee. Ismael has also facilitated several professional developments at the school district on issues ranging from structural racism to bridging the knowledge gap of students that manifests between high schools and postsecondary institutions.


Ismael in the news:

Labor Notes: Philly Teachers Go For It

Examiner: Why is race important to the Caucus of Working Educators? 

The Notebook: Thorny Issues Explored at Summer Institute for Teachers

Urban Journal of Education: Reading for Change: Social Justice Unionism Book Groups as Organizing Tools

Raging Chicken Press: Is Social Justice Unionism Going to Save Public Education in Philadelphia?

WE Convention Closing Remarks, 11/14/15: We are about to embark on a journey...

Philadelphia Tribune: Contested Races Next Year for Teachers' Union Offices

The Notebook: Teacher Advocacy Group Challenges PFT Leadership

Check out our In The Press page for many more stories about Ismael and Working Educators! 



Recognizing the Power and Struggle of Our School Counselors


School counselors play a critical role in the educational process that enables all Philadelphia students to meet their full potentials. In honor of National School Counselor Week, the Caucus of Working Educators wants to recognize the amazing work that our counselors do -- and honor their struggles by highlighting a vision for how our union can support them.

Read more

How WE Will Lead: The Working Educators Executive Board

The Working Educators team is ready to bring a renewed purpose to the PFT Executive Board. These members will work hard to represent the educators who share their bargaining units and professional categories. It is time to have an Executive Board that operates transparently and inclusively.

We can't wait for you to get to know our whole teamHere's Working Educators Slate for Executive Board Representatives:


Screenshot_2016-02-03_at_7.26.38_PM.pngADAM BLYWEISS has spent seven years teaching in career and technical education (CTE) programs for commercial and advertising art at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts, Germantown High School, and Martin Luther King High School. He earned a Master of Education degree in Industrial Education from Temple University. Before joining the district, Adam worked in print production, software development, publication management, and nonprofit advising.

KRISTIN COMBS is in her sixth year teaching at Penn Treaty School after being forced out of Vaux High School in 2013 due to the SRC closures. She recently ended a strong grassroots campaign for a minority seat on city council. Kristin hopes to use the political and activist connections that she built during this campaign and during her past three years as a leader in independent left politics to serve you as on executive board.


JULIE STEINER is a 20-year teaching veteran who currently teaches English and serves as the PFT Building Representative at WB Saul HS for Agricultural Sciences. Julie holds a National Board Adolescent and Young Adult English/Language Arts certification. She is also a 2013 Lindback Award winner and the 2012 College Board-recognized Outstanding AP teacher in the Middle States region.  



CARLOS FREDERICK has been teaching in the School District of Philadelphia  for the past six years. His time has been spent working  at Audrenreid, Germantown High School, and currently at Woodrow Wilson  Middle School as a History teacher.  He earned a master’s degree in Liberal Arts. Additionally, Carlos holds a certificate in Holocaust and Genocide Studies from Kean University and a certificate in African-American Studies from Ramapo College.

KRISTIN LUEBBERT has been teaching since 2001. She is a 7th and 8th grade English Language Arts teacher at Bache-Martin. Kristin has been a PFT Building Committee Member and is a long-time Building Representative.  Kristin has also served  as an AFT delegate numerous times. She  has been active in PFT actions and protests and is a member of Teacher Action Group Philly and a founding member of the Caucus of Working Educators of the PFT.


RAYMOND PORECCA has been teaching in the School District of Philadelphia for seven years. He was a special appointment at Austin Meehan for one year before moving to Feltonville Arts & Sciences where he has served as a member of the building committee, baseball coach and SEL.  He holds certificates in Special Education (N-12) and Middle Years English.



MICHAEL BERSTEIN has been teaching for the School District of Philadelphia for 10 years. Mike  is  a Computer Technology teacher and a  TTL.  He has been a member of the Building Committee and has also served as a Building Representative. Mike has been an AFT delegate and a workshop facilitator  at several PFT Health and Welfare Conferences.

LISA HANTMAN is a Master level teacher with Education and Reading certificates. She has been teaching for 35 years, 27 in the School District of Philadelphia (Pre-K - 6). Lisa received a Fulbright Scholarship and taught in England. Currently, she teaches at McCall School. Lisa is involved in many professional teachers’ groups, including The Philadelphia Learning Cooperative, Philadelphia Writing Project, and Need In Deed, and was a planner of the ECET2 Convening.

TAMIKO MITCHELL has been with the School District of Philadelphia for seven years. She had the privilege of teaching at James J. Sullivan Elementary School and is currently teaching at Potter Thomas Promise Academy.  Tamiko earned a bachelor’s in elementary/special education and a master’s degree in curriculum/instruction and administration/supervision. She currently holds dual Level Two Pennsylvania certifications in Special Education and Elementary Education and has been a member of the Building Committee for three years.



BETH MENASION has been a Learning Support teacher in the district for 10 years, both at Welsh (K-8) and at Science Leadership Academy.  She also worked as a preschool teacher in the Parent Infant Center’s “Pre-K Counts” classroom.  She has been a building rep for 3 years, and was a founding member of West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools. 



BREANNA MITCHELL has been working in the School District of Philadelphia for three years. She works at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences as a Special Education Classroom Assistant.  She is a graduate of Community College of Philadelphia and is currently attending La Salle University with an expected graduation date of May 2016.  Her goal is to become a Middle Years Math and Science teacher.



LISETTE RIVERA currently works at The U School as the Founding Bilingual Secretary.  Lisette started working at Olney High School as a Noon-Time Aide in 1999. In 2000, she became a Bilingual Secretary and a Twilight Secretary, which then became EOP. Lisette has also worked at Frankford High School, Frankford EOP, and H.A Brown.  She aspires to become a high school counselor.



GEORGE DAVID RUVARAC is one of only three Non-Teaching Assistants left in the entire district. He was an Agriculture teacher at Saul High School for three years and was force-transferred last year due to staff cuts. As a result of his Agriculture teaching certificate, there were no other district jobs to be force-transferred to.  George was later  rehired as a Saul High School NTA farmer, one who cares for the farm and works with agriculture teachers who use the farm as their “classroom.” He understands the challenges created by district job insecurity and will continue the PFT’s fight to restore NTA’s across the district. 



MARGARET ROLON began her career with the School District of Philadelphia as a bilingual ESOL tutor in 1999.  She has been both an ESOL tutor and an SSA for the last two years.  Margaret is a Paraprofessional who works primarily with English Language Learners in the Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences where she is also a long-time member of the Building Committee.    




PATRICIA ECKERT has been with the School District of Philadelphia for 23 years. She started her career in the district after serving 10 years as a parent volunteer. Patricia is currently a Budget Technical Assistant. Previously, she has served the district as an SSA, School Community Coordinator, and School Operations Officer. She has been a member of the Building Committee.




ALICE CAVALLI has been a PFT member for 15 years.  She is the Head Start Building Representative at Taggart Elementary School. Alice has also been on the Building Committee. She wants Head Start to return to every school in order to provide a smooth continuum to Kindergarten.



CHRISTINE MARTIN is a retired Certified School Nurse with 23 years of service. She worked at Stoddart Fleisher Middle School for 17 years and Constitution High School for six. Christine earned a Diploma in Nursing from the Albert Einstein School of Nursing, a bachelor’s degree from Philadelphia University, and a master’s degree from St. Joseph University.



SHARON HANDZUS has been a Food Service Manager with the district for 13 years.  At Saul High School, she works with both the food science faculty and the on-site vegetable farm to introduce more fresh food options for Saul’s students.  Sharon wants to stop district conversions of real school kitchens to satellite kitchens, make sure that kitchen machinery is regularly serviced to keep kitchen staff safe, and fight to protect Food Service Manager jobs throughout the district.



TATIANA OLMEDO has worked for the School District of Philadelphia for the past 15 years as a bilingual school counselor (Spanish). She currently works at Central High School where she also serves on the Building Committee. Tatiana is a member of the PFT’s Counselors steering committee, the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association, and a founding member of the Caucus of Working Educators of the PFT and serves on the steering committee. She earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania.



JOE ALBERTI has taught in the district for 11 years.  He taught at Andrew Hamilton School, Lewis Elkin School, and has been at Samuel Powel Elementary for nine years.  He is certified in Elementary Education,  Middle Years English, and holds a National Board Certification as a Middle Childhood Generalist. He is involved in numerous organizations across the city.

MARGARET DEVINE, RN, CSN, has been an active PFT member since 1992 and is a current member of the Executive Board. Peg has also been an AFT delegate. Currently, she is a school nurse at Abraham Lincoln High School and has received numerous awards including the PASNAP Regional School Nurse Excellence Award (2011) and the Coalition of Labor Union Women Working Women’s Awareness Award (2012). 

HERMAN DOUGLASS currently works at Bethune McLeod Bethune Elementary School and formerly at Feltonville Arts and Sciences. He has been a PFT member for seven years. He has been a Building Representative and was the Multicultural Chair of Upper Darby Education Association (NEA) from 1997 to 2004.

DAVID HENSEL has taught at Taggart Elementary for 15 years. He has been the PFT Building Representative for four years now. He has a master's degree in Elementary Education and also holds a certificate  in Early Childhood Education. David was a founding member of the Caucus of Working Educators of the PFT and has served on the steering and political committees.

CHARLIE MCGEEHAN teaches Humanities at The U School, a new District school designed to meet the individual needs and interests of our students. He also taught at Kensington CAPA. He is committed to strengthening our union through deep organizing work that empowers our members across the district.

DANIEL SYMONDS teaches 7th grade at Luis Muñoz Marín School, where he is the PFT Building Representative. He is looking forward to building a stronger, more organized, and united PFT. He holds a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor's from Swarthmore College.

JESSICA WAY has been teaching in the School District of Philadelphia for eight years. She is a registered nurse and teaches in the Medical Assistant program at Franklin Learning Center. Before she came to the district, Jessica was a public health, labor and delivery nurse. She is a Lindback award winner and serves on her school’s Leadership Team.