Slice of Life 19: To Opt Out or Not?

At the invitation of a friend, I recently joined the “Opt Out of Standardized Tests in Pennsylvania” group on Facebook. The group, made up of area parents, encourages parents to become informed about the drawbacks of high stakes testing and provides parents with the tools necessary to exempt their children from the yearly PSSAs and Keystone exams administered in the state. I’ve seen several parents in my district post that they’ve opted their kids out of the tests.

Which leaves me in a conundrum: do I opt my kids out of the tests? 

Matthew, my oldest, took his first PSSAs last year in third grade. I (almost) wish I could say that the tests were too stressful for him, that he came home upset and crying (okay, I don’t really wish that at all). But if he had reacted that way to the tests, it would make my decision to opt him out that much easier.

The truth is that not only did Matthew not get upset by the PSSAs, he enjoyed them. Yes, you read that correctly. After all, what’s not to enjoy when you get extra recess, don’t have to do any homework, and you get to enjoy eating mints during the test?  Once during the two weeks last April when they were testing, Matthew hopped into the car after school and sighed, “I wish we could have PSSAs every day!”

He—and I suspect his younger brother—also test relatively well, so in that sense, we are fortunate. It also seems like their school tries to minimize student stress (see above), and from what I can tell from the homework, classroom instruction hasn’t been completely hijacked by test prep. Again, we are fortunate.

As a general principle, I’m not opposed to standardized testing. As a teacher, I believe it’s important to measure progress and identify areas of need. A standardized test can highlight strengths and weaknesses a student may have, and I think that’s valuable information to have as a parent and a teacher. Formative assessment can also be a valuable tool to drive instructional improvement. And honestly, I do think that some of the skills assessed on standardized tests are valuable, like being able to write to a prompt, read a passage to discern its main idea, apply content knowledge to new problems, etc.

So then why would I want to opt my kids out?

My problem is not so much with the general idea of standardized testing, but with its application… or should I say, its misapplication. I don’t like the idea that test scores—and only test scores—can drive all curricular decisions at one too many schools. It’s a results-driven, numbers-driven, data-driven approach—not a student-driven one.

I don’t like the idea that test scores are being used—in some cases, as a weapon—to evaluate teachers, as if teachers’ most important job is to prepare students to do well on a single assessment. I don’t like that a school’s funding sometimes depends on this single assessment. I don’t like that teachers and schools may inadvertently place too much pressure on students, thus sacrificing the joy of learning. I don’t like that some schools, fearing a lower school profile score, narrow curricula to focus almost exclusively on test preparation. And I especially don’t like that low test scores are used to cover up very serious and very real problems of inequity, problems that arise from poverty more than they do from any single teacher.

So while my own children are in a “best case scenario” when it comes to standardized tests, I can’t ignore the negative impact that testing has had on others. And shouldn’t I be opposed to the tests regardless of my own children’s performance or experience with them? Don’t I perpetuate this broken system of testing by not opting my children out?

Maybe I already know the answer to my question…

slice of lifeThis post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 250 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit


  1. My kids have had their fair share of standardized testing, but not to the extent that some kids are going through in other states. I would struggle with this same question, but I do agree with the last part of your post. It isn’t that my kids would struggle with the test, but it is how the test is being used. That is the part that I really struggle with. Trust teachers to do what they do best – teach so that kids can learn.


  2. mbuckelew

    Tricia — Thanks for another thought-provoking post (with some smiles thrown in — mints and “I wish we could have PSSAs everyday” :-). While my own children are grown — I clearly remember the agony of the standardized tests for one child and not the other. My son always seemed to breeze through standardized tests but my daughter, not at all — based on my personal experience and professional, I would have to opt out, but it is a complex issue — wise teachers/administrators can implement testing to benefit instruction and children, but — as you note, it’s just not the case in so many schools. Love your SOLs


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