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 [email protected]  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 [email protected].

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

Opt Out Philly to take part in National Parent Strike on Sept. 17

Opt Out Philly will be a part of the National Parent’s Strike. It’s not just a day it’s a national movement for parents to take back public education one test score at a time!


On Thursday, September 17, Opt Out Philly is participating in the National Parents Strike by asking parents, teachers and community members to do the following:

  • Wear Red
  • Submit your Refusal letters to your child’s school
  • Change your profile pic to that of your children or an Opt Out image
  • Use the following hashtags when you Tweet or share on social media: #optoutphilly #phillyparentstrike #welovephillyteachers #weloveourteachers #weloveourchildren and #nationalparentstrike

A press conference will be held in front of the School District of Philadelphia at 440 North Broad Street between 4:45 pm and 5:30 pm.

Last year, parents opted out at nearly twenty schools in the Philadelphia School District, in suburban districts like Quakertown, Lower Merion, Abington, and Lower Moreland, and in several of the state’s cyber charter schools.

"There is a strong correlation between standardized test scores and household income. It is simply unethical for Pennsylvania to spend $58.3 million annually on high-stakes tests that punish students living in poverty, English Language Learners, and special needs students. We want joy and curiosity, not compliance and discipline." Alison McDowell, parent of a Philadelphia School District 8th grader.

Parents are especially alarmed by how these tests affect English Language Learners and children with IEPs. Further, parents are heeding the warning of educators and researchers that the obsession with standardized testing is simply being used to label kids, teachers, and schools as failures.

“I am opposed to these tests being used simply to sort and separate students, rather than help them learn,” said Robin Roberts, School District of Philadelphia parent. “My child is more than a score.”

Parent leader Tonya Bah who has children at Wagner Middle School and Widener Memorial School says, “We, as parents and students, deserve to know our rights. We are here to break the code of silence surrounding standardized testing in Philadelphia. Every parent has a right to opt their child out of the test. Every student has a right to refuse the test.”


For more information, please visit the Opt Out Philly Blog, Facebook, or call 267-283-8273 (Tamara Anderson).

Why are Philly parents opting out of standardized testing?

Philadelphia parents talk about why they decided to opt their children out of the PSSA and Keystone tests.

Watch the video here


Testing is ruining public education.

You have the power to stop it.

Get all the information you need to opt out of the PSSA and Keystone tests in the Opt Out Organizing Toolkit

Like the Opt Out Philly facebook page https://www.facebook.com/OptOutPhilly


Parents Speak Out: The new PSSA and Keystone scores are ‘loaded guns’ aimed at our kids


Parent activists call new PSSA and Keystone cut scores “loaded guns” that rob schools of resources and kick the school-to-prison pipeline into overdrive. Parents are intensifying organizing efforts to increase opt out rates during the 2015-2016 school year.

Philadelphia parents are urging students and families across the city to refuse PSSA and Keystone standardized tests by legally “opting out”. Families across PA are outraged by significant drops in PSSA scores and similar projections for yet-to-be-released Keystones scores. Administrators claim more ‘rigorous’ standards are the cause, but parents see it as setting the bar out of reach for the students who are most at risk.


“It is calculated and predetermined that kids who are raised in poverty, who have english-language differences or special education needs, don’t pass these tests,” explains Philadelphia public school parent Robin Roberts. “It’s orchestrated. It has nothing to do with the kids or the teachers.”

Parent Tonya Bah maintains, “The Keystone state exams are ‘loaded guns’ aimed at taking any shred of opportunity from our children and their future, while widening the gap between the haves and have not’s.” A new law requires students to pass the Keystone exams in order to graduate. The drop in scores will prevent students from graduating, increase drop-outs, and wreck havoc at schools. “If high school students do not pass the Literature, Biology, and Algebra exams they will be denied high school diplomas,” explains Bah, who was instrumental in getting 171 families to opt of out the PSSA’s at one of her children’s schools.

“Those tests determine the number of jail cells that are built. I don’t want my children or any other child to feel like there’s anything built for them but success,” says Shakeda Gaines, Philadelphia public school parent and Member at Large of the Philadelphia Home and School Association.


The pattern of introducing “more rigorous” tests, followed by a huge drop in performance and subsequent implementation of punitive measures against schools, students, and teachers is one that has played out in other states -- most recently New York and New Jersey. In both states, drops in test scores led to massive parent-led opt out mobilizations.



Opt Out Philly – a coalition of parents, teachers, and students formed last year to organize opt out campaigns at local schools across the city and suburbs – is intensifying outreach efforts targeting community events, street fairs, and back-to-school events to inform parents about their legal right to opt their children out of the test. Movement leaders expect opt out rates to soar during the 2015-2016 school year.

More information can be found at: http://www.workingeducators.org/opt_out_philly_hits_the_streets_in_2015_2016 


Opt Out Philly members include: the Caucus of Working Educators of the PFT, Action United, Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, Parents United for Public Education, Asian Americans United, Philadelphia Student Union, Poor Peoples Economic Human Rights Campaign, and Teacher Action Group.


Opt Out today! 
For more info:

Opt Out Philly hits the streets in 2015-2016

“They don’t have a counselor, they don’t have a nurse, they can’t go to the bathroom, but they gotta take this test."

-- Philadelphia public school parent

Watch the video here

Opt Out Philly parents, community members, & teachers hit the ground running this school year doing outreach at community meetings, block parties, and back-to-school events throughout the city.



Start recruiting parents and students today -- Opt Out for Justice!

Download the flyer here and the sample opt out letter here.


















Our First-Ever Meme Competition: The Cost of Standardized Testing...

We're very excited to announce our first-ever meme competition! The focus: high-stakes standardized testing.

The annual cost of testing in PA is $58,291,000. But educators, parents, and communities know the costs to our students and schools are much greater. Help communicate the harms caused by high-stakes standardized tests and the privatization of our public schools: 


Meme creator link: http://memegenerator.net/We-Optout-Meme-Contest

1)Simply follow the link above, click the green "create" button, and add your text! Click "generate" to complete the meme.

2) Make sure you save your image by right-clicking it and then selecting "save image as", or by sharing on social media. Make sure to tag it #‎OptOutMemeCompetition

3) Submit your meme to us by posting it on our facebook thread, or by emailing it to [email protected] All submissions will be credited.

(This photo was taken as part of the Philadelphia Opt Out Day of Action with Jesse Turner on July 7th, 2015. Click here for more photos from the event: https://goo.gl/O44sko)


On Keystone Testing: A Philadelphia Teacher’s Reflection

Early last week, I stripped the walls of my classroom bare. I took down the flags students had created to represent themselves, I took down the project we’d been working on since February - a Literacy through Photography project that gives a complex vision of student identities - and that has inspired considerable pride and interest in my students. I took down the maps, the art, even my calendar. I moved the desks out of the large square we normally use, into sterile rows. It’s not the end of the year, though it may feel like it. For the second time this year, it’s Keystone season.


Classroom: Before and After

For six days spread over two weeks, our school is disrupted. From 8 to 11:30, we are in testing rooms. For the rest of the day, we run through 30-minute classes. The attitude from students is that these days don’t count - and the feeling around school is that the year is already over. It’s a shame, considering our last day of classes is June 18. It’s not an illusion for students - grades close June 9 and the Keystones aren’t fully finished until May 27 (including students being pulled for makeups).

The day before testing began, I had a circle with my students in order to give them space to express their feelings about testing. As an introductory activity, I gave each student 3 post-its, and had them write a thought or feeling about standardized testing in general and the Keystones specifically on each. Then, I had them stick their post-its on the wall on a scale of “Positive” to “Negative”. Below are the results from each of my classes.


Student thoughts on testing. (Left side = Strongly Positive, Right side = Strongly Negative)

As you can see, the results leaned strongly negative. The most common word was “hate”, followed by “stupid”, “boring”, and “pointless”. In addition to variations on these common words, there were also words like “stressful”, “anxious”, and “scared”. And I can hear the critique: Sure, but no kid is going to love or even like a test.

From my students, though, I see something different. Through the conversation that followed this brainstorming, I got the real sense that my students believe these tests to be harmful to them - and really not supportive of their best interests or their visions of the future.

If you look at our school results, you can see that as the case. No more than 20 percent of our students passed any exam, and under 10 percent passed Biology and Algebra. For our 10th graders, this is a graduation requirement. The “project” replacement requires staff our school doesn’t have. There is a disaster looming when this test becomes a graduation requirement in two years.

Screen Shot 2015-05-17 at 10.21.56 AM.png

From: http://paschoolperformance.org/Profile/6830

I think it’s appropriate that we strip our walls during these days of testing (I was even told by a School District of Philadelphia observer that I needed to erase the date from the board during testing) - because testing forces me as a teacher to strip all value from my practice. I suddenly have to become more authoritarian, uncaring, robotic. These are things I try to push out of my teaching practice, but on these days I feel forced by the state to bring them back in.

Assessments, what we ask students to do, should have real value in this world. What is the value of sitting silently and filling in bubbles? I feel more like a prison guard these days - patrolling the room, unable to speak with or support kids, escorting students to the bathroom. The most meaningful words for nearly 3 hours of my day are “Be quiet”, “No talking”. Even though I’ve spent most of my time doing nothing, I feel drained.

It’s hard for me to continue to subject my students to something they hate - and not because it’s hard, but because they feel it is hurting them and not spending their time wisely. Keystone testing only deepens the disengagement of many of my students with the education system. It is certainly not a motivating factor. This morning, we have 129 students present in the building out of 479. That’s 27%.

There’s a far better way we can be spending our time - activities that empower students, enrich their lives, and make them come alive. We need to opt into opportunities for self-actualization, and opt out of this system of testing that is psychologically harmful, and isn’t preparing our students for success in their visions of their futures.

Out of fear for my job, I continue to proctor this exam. I keep quiet about my feelings on the tests in front of my students in the classroom. But, I’m not sure how much longer I can continue this way. After 6 days of testing, with my soul drained, I’ll hang the student work back on the wall, move my desks back into a square, and get back to real education.


Charlie McGeehan is an educator at Kensington CAPA High School, and a member of the Caucus of Working Educators. He can be found @cmcgeeiii on Twitter, and [email protected].


URGENT: Attention Parents, There's Still Time to Refuse the PSSA!

Great news! This Friday (4/10), a directive was sent to Philadelphia testing coordinators stating that any student with a letter from their parent will be able to opt out of the PSSA-- regardless of whether they've reviewed the test.

This means ANYONE can opt out of the test still*. Here's how:

Submit the following letter in writing (hand-written is fine), changing the names to suit your child and school.

Date: ______________________ 

To: _______________________ (principal's name)

From: _____________________ (parent/guardian's name)

Re: PSSA Test Refusal

As parent/guardian of _________________ (student's name) who is currently enrolled at ____________________ (school name) in the Philadelphia School District, I have serious concerns regarding the overuse and misuse of high-stakes standardized testing and its negative impact on the education my child is receiving. Therefore, my child ______________________ (student name) is under my directive as his/her parent NOT to take any PSSA assessment this school year.

I am writing to state that you must respect my legal parental rights. Do not place my child into the testing environment and do not present him/her with an assessment. My child will be considered to have refused the assessment, and you shall code his/her test as "other" as specified on page 9 of the PSSA Testing Coordinator's Handbook.

If my child has begun the PSSA, it is my wish that they complete that initial section, and that my refusal apply to all remaining sections of the PSSA not yet started. All remaining sections of the assessment shall be marked "other" for my child.


_______________________ (parental signature)

cc: Superintendent Hite ([email protected])

* Please note if your child has begun a section of the PSSA (for example reading, which is the first section), you are not able to opt them out of that section.  You are, however, able to opt them out of the next sections (for example math and science).


Here is the directive that was sent to all testing coordinators in the School District of Philadelphia on Friday afternoon:

Every student that has submitted a written opt-out request for religious OR non-religious reasons is excused from the test.If the parent put in a religious request for exemption and reviewed the test, testing coordinators have been instructed to mark the religious exemption bubble.
If the parent put in a non-religious request or if they didn't review the test, testing coordinators are to to mark the "other" bubble.
And if you're still not sure about opting out, parent and opt-out advocate Tonya Bah (pictured below) offers this advice:
Albert Einstein wrote, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” The question I have for you at this point of our journey together is, “What is your genius?”



(Above: Parent Tonya Bah educates families near Broad and Olney; Below: Parent Shakeda Gaines shows off her new Opt Out car decorations.)

What do Philly Principals know about Opt Out? Read the District's Official Opt Out Protocol.

Earlier this month, this official Opt Out protocol was provided to ALL principals in the Philadelphia School District by the Office of Curriculum and Assessment.

The Notebook has also covered the district's new distribution of Opt Out info.

If you encounter school administrators who are are NOT following this protocol, immediately send an email to [email protected], so that we can work to resolve the issue. No one should feel bullied or intimidated for exercising their legal right to review and opt out of these assessments on religious grounds.

(Want to see who else is opting out in your area? Over 350 families have already put themselves on the Opt Outs in PA Map!)


Parental Request to View the PSSA/Keystone Assessments – District Protocol

Online Testing Sites

Schools testing online ONLY, must call DRC (1-800-451-7849) to request a paper copy of the tests to be used ONLY for parental review, if necessary.

Paper & Pencil Testing Sites

1. If a parent contacts the school with a request to view the PSSA/Keystone test.

     b. Provide this opportunity at a mutually convenient date/time no earlier than two weeks prior to the start of the testing window.

          ii. PSSA review start: Wednesday, March 25

          iii. Keystone review start: Wednesday, April 29

     c. Also, notify the parent of the location inside the school where this will take place

2. Make a copy of the Parent Confidentiality Agreement (Appendix of F of the Assessment Handbook)

     d. The parent MUST sign this before viewing the test

     e. Translations of this document also are available in the 8 dominant languages. Non-English speaking parents are allowed to bring an interpreter with them while viewing the test

     f. BOTH the parent and the interpreter MUST sign the Confidentiality Agreement prior to viewing the test/s

     g. The Test Coordinator or designee must collect all Confidentiality Agreements and keep them on file at the school.

3. The Test Coordinator or designee can break the shrink wrap and pull out any one formof the test booklet for the subject and provide it to the parent

4. The Test coordinator or designee MUST be present in the room throughout the time the parent is viewing the test booklet

     b. The test booklets should not be in the possession of the parent without the presence of a designated/responsible school staff

     a. Parents cannot take notes or communicate with others during the viewing and should not possess their cell phones during this time

     b. Test booklets for more than one subject can be viewed in one session. Many parents can view the test booklets in one viewing session

     c. The Test Coordinator or designee will collect the test booklet/s back from the parent/s after they have viewed it/them and lock the booklets back in the secure storage area

5. After viewing the test booklet/s, if a parent finds anything against his/her religious beliefs in the test content and decides to opt his/her child out of testing, he/she must write a letter (or send an e-mail) to the superintendent ([email protected]) requesting that his/her child opt-out of the PSSA/Keystone testing. It is recommended that the principal be copied on the e-mail

6. On the day/s of testing, the school must provide alternative instructional activities for students who opted out

Download a PDF version of this Opt Out Protocol here.

Want to learn more about how to Opt Out in PA?: Check our our Guide to Opting Out in PA and Frequently Asked Questions for more info. 

Opting Out of the PSSA: Frequently Asked Questions

If you'd like more information about how to opt out of the PSSA, or would like to see which schools in your area have families opting out already, take a look at our guide to Opting Out in PA.


1.  Do I need to explain my religious beliefs with specific questions from the PSSA test on my opt out letter?

No.  A parent simply states "because of religious beliefs."  Once a parent reviews the PSSA, this is all that needs to be included in the letter:
On [Date] I had the opportunity to review the PSSA test and pursuant to Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4 (d)(4) I am hereby exercising my right as a parent to have my child, [Name] excused from PSSA testing because of religious beliefs.  
Parents must sign a confidentiality agreement. If they state anything specific from the PSSA test, THEY WILL BREACH THE CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT. Parents cannot, by nature of the confidentiality agreement, write specifically what they oppose for religious reasons on the PSSA test.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education explains this, see page 4, question 10 at Chapter 4 FAQ:
So, as long as a parent or guardian reviews the state assessment and provides a written statement providing his/her written objection for religious purposes (however vague that objection may be), the child must be excused from the assessment. PDE will not provide an opinion as to what is a proper religious objection.  
However, this false statement, and other similar false statements have been given to parents from their school districts:
The Pennsylvania Department of Education has made it clear that any objection to the testing materials for religious reasons must be specific in nature, must note the specific question or questions that are objectionable and the specific, religious reason for your objection. Please note a general statement of religious objection does not meet the intention of this review and will not be considered for possible exemption.
2.  My child is opted out of the PSSA testing, what will they do while their classmates are taking the PSSA's?
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) on page 9 of the PSSA Handbook:
If the student is excused from the assessment due to parental or guardian request, school personnel must provide an alternative learning environment for the student during the assessment and select “Student had a parental request for exclusion from the assessment."     


3.  When can I schedule to review the PSSA?  My school district has offered limited hours which makes it difficult for me to schedule a time to review.  

From page 9 of the 2015 PSSA Handbook for Assessment Coordinators:
Districts must provide a convenient time for the review. This may include an evening review time, if requested.


4. For more information about the Opt-Out Protocol: Parental request to view the PSSA and Keystone Exams-District Protocol

This document describes the process of opting out of PSSAs and Keystone exams. It was provided to ALL principals in the Philadelphia School District by the Office of Curriculum and Assessment. If you encounter school administrators who are are NOT following this protocol, immediately send an email to [email protected], so that we can work to resolve the issue. No one should feel bullied or intimidated for exercising their legal right to review and opt out of these assessments on religious grounds. 


What other questions do you have about Opting Out? Let us know on facebooktwitter or at c[email protected]!  


Reposted from Opt Out Pennsylvania Blog.

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