Jennifer Rainey (mother of Jake ’23 and Emily ’24), Public School Teacher
Part three of a five-part series sharing the Academy’s thoughts on effective and intentional student assessment
I have been working in public schools for about 17 years in a variety of settings from very rural to inner city. This is my third year teaching in an inner city elementary school, and it is very diverse. We have students from all over the world, and 20 different languages are spoken in my school that has a population of around 650 K-4th grade students.
I started noticing the biggest changes six years ago. About two weeks before the PSSA tests were to be given, teachers were told to start prepping their students for the test. The next year, this started two months before the tests were given and workbooks called “Buckle Down” books appeared in classrooms. These were workbooks specifically made as practice for the PSSAs. The last two years, the very first thing I have heard when returning to school at the end of the summer is “PSSAs.”
Teachers begin training for these tests before students even start school, and nearly every professional development session and meeting is geared towards raising test scores. And as you might imagine, every time a teacher teaches something in class, the words, “This is going to be on the PSSAs,” are heard.
In my current job, I am our school’s K-2nd grade reading specialist. Even though I do not work with students in testing grades, I am part of the team of people in my building that plans for the PSSAs — and the amount of work that needs to be done is mind-boggling!
I have not seen my students in two months because all of my time is devoted to the tests. We start weeks before the testing date planning schedules. We have testing schedules, make-up schedules, extended-time schedules, specials schedules, duty schedules, and schedules that tell where everyone, both students and staff, needs to be at all times.
Then there is the book! This is a binder that, when it’s all done, is at least four-to-five inches thick. It has every last detail, from every email sent by every person about the PSSAs to the name of the person with the keys to the room where the tests are being hidden. All of this is documented just in case someone from the Pennsylvania Department of Education stops by. Test books have to be labeled, supply baskets have to be filled, and then there is the building itself. Every hallway is either blank or covered in rolls of paper. Classroom walls are bare or covered up. Clocks are covered, bookshelves are turned around, and sheets are thrown over everything with words or numbers. Even carpets get rolled up! This year it stayed that way for six weeks.
My oldest daughter took the PSSAs many years ago when she was in 3rd and 4th grade. She is a smart kid, and she scored advanced on every section both years. She thought the tests were easy, but I knew you could not judge a child by a one-size-fits-all standardized test. When she was in 5th grade, I started opting her out. I didn’t feel these tests were of any value to her or her teachers (the schools don’t even get the scores until the students move on to the next grade).
I have continued to opt her and her younger siblings out of PSSA tests for the last five years, however, I noticed that even if they weren’t taking the test, their education was being focused on the tests. Just like in the schools in which I was teaching, everything my kids were doing was for the sole purpose of passing a standardized test.
I kept trying to fight it, and I started not only opting them out of the test itself, but also all PSSA prep work. The school district was no longer allowed to give my children any work where the only purpose of it was to prepare for the PSSAs. That included the CDT tests that they were giving students every other month for days at a time which were nothing more than a practice test to determine if students would do well on the PSSAs.
I finally realized my kids were no longer going to school to get an education — they were going to school to learn how to be test-takers. That’s when my husband and I started looking into private schools. What we loved about Harrisburg Academy is that the focus is to prepare students for the future, not for a test. We love how Harrisburg Academy looks at the complete child and understands that there is more to every child than just how he or she scores academically. Students’ talents, skills, and emotional well-being are nurtured at this school.
For years I fought against standardized testing. I not only opted my own kids out of the tests, but I have helped family, friends, and complete strangers on the Internet opt their children out of testing. I will continue to fight against these tests for my students; but for my own children, I had to put them in a school where I felt they would get the best education.