The Haves and Have Nots of State Exams

by Rainiel Guzmán

Not all students are required to take the PSSA exams.  Money and politics play a role. 

As the headwinds of standardized tests fast approach with all the anxiety and stress that announce their arrival—I have often wondered, are there students who may opt out of taking state mandated tests?  Believe it or not, some may.

Surely students who are learning English as a second language may opt out from taking state mandated tests. Unfortunately they cannot. ELL students are required to participate in standardized testing. Nonetheless, many states in recognition of the challenges ELL students confront exempt their test scores for the purposes of their school’s AYP status. Yet, the exemption is partial and limited.

In Pennsylvania, ELL students are excused from taking the Reading and Writing portions of the PSSA in their first year of schooling. However, they are required to participate in the Math and Science portions. Their scores are not a factor but their participation is a determinant in their school’s AYP status. One might ask, why then given this Byzantine rational is so much stress placed upon ELL students? 

Authoritative studies have demonstrated the timeframe required to acquire a second language. For example, students between 8 – 11 years old with 2 – 3 years of native language education take 5 – 7 years to test at grade level in English. Moreover, the formal education or lack of formal education prior to arriving to the United States is a major determinant in the acquisition of English as a second language.  Students with little or no formal schooling, who arrive before the age of eight, take 7 – 10 years to reach grade level norms in English language literacy.

These convoluted exemptions are married to an equally complex set of accommodations.  For example, ELL students may use a word-to-word dictionary as long as it does not provide definitions or illustrations. Likewise, its use is limited to the Math and Science tests yet it is not permitted for the Reading and Writing portions. Lost in this whirlwind of parameters is the fact that many of these exemptions and accommodations hinge greatly on the first year classification.

What happens to ELL students in their second year of schooling? They are required to take all of the tests portions. Enter the Byzantine rationale once again. The following is an excerpt from the PSSA Accommodations Guidelines:

“The USDE guidance also provides flexibility in determining who can be included in the ELL subgroup for purposes of making AYP determinations. Because ELL students exit the ELL subgroup once they attain English language proficiency, schools and districts may have difficulty demonstrating improvements on state assessments for these students. The USDE allows schools, districts, and states to include in the ELL subgroup those students who have exited anESL/bilingual education program within the past two years. AYP is determined using monitored students (former ELLs) if necessary.”

Let’s keep in mind the stress and anxiety that high-stakes tests inflect on native English students. Now try to imagine the levels of stress and anxiety in a student of English as a second language, especially those in their initial years of English language acquisition. Fortunately, exemptions do exist for some students from these levels of stress and anxiety. Yes, private, religious and home schooled children may opt out of high risk, high stress and high anxiety testing (20 U.S.C. § 7886 United States Code / § 7886. Private, religious, and home schools).

Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

Why are they exempt? you may ask. The answer is simple: private and religious schools generally operate under their own independent charter and more importantly do not receive public funds. These facts enable them to opt out of mandated state tests. Many private and religious schools opt out of state mandated assessments due to philosophical and pedagogic reasons as well. Their numbers are not to be dismissed.

In Pennsylvania there are 1,400 private schools. Nearly half of these are religiously affiliated; 530 Roman Catholic schools, 39 Jewish schools, 26 Friends schools, and 8 Episcopal schools. A uniting criterion among these schools is their belief that a child’s education should be individualized rather than standardized. Likewise, these schools cater to parents who seek out these programs and values for their children.              

I sincerely applaud these parents. However, I cannot ignore the present irony. The students with the greatest means are able to opt out. While the most vulnerable of students and with the fewest means are compelled to take assessments that ignore research and their humanity.                                                                                                                                       

As the headwinds of 2014 (100 percent proficiency under NCLB) fast approach with all the anxiety and stress that precede their arrival—I have often wondered as well, given that private and religious schools may be exempt from state mandated standardized tests and thus unencumbered with AYP, do they fall under the statutes of NCLB? The answer is simply, no. Surprised? Unfortunately, there is no exemption for your astonishment.      

Rainiel Guzman is a 2011 Lindback Distinguished Teacher Award winner.  He is an adjunct professor at Eastern University, and teaches art at Swenson Arts and Technology High School in Northeast Philadelphia.

2 thoughts on “The Haves and Have Nots of State Exams

  1. Thank you for your timely commentary on the stress that occurs in ELL students during PSSA testing. Even if they become experts in test-taking skills, they have difficulty choosing an answer because 11th grade vocabulary (even the Daily News is written on a fifth grade level) has no contextual meaning when the answer stands by itself.
    If the child’s test score is not proficient or advanced, their efforts are perceived as if they did not try. Some of my best ELL students scored high basic (an exceptional score for them), but are not regognised by the state, school district or local school for their efforts. How’s that for fair?

    • Thanks for the the anecdote. Sadly most people are ignorant to the bias these formulations enclose. Conversely suburban public school generally have ELL students with educated or highly educated parents in their first language -an invaluable resource. No Corporation Left Behind is dashing to the finish line-with no clothes on- luckily ELL students know how to say that in their first language.

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