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.