Parents of about 100 students at North Philadelphia's Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences have signed letters withdrawing their children from standardized tests.

Now, the Philadelphia School District is investigating whether or not those have parents "have been fully informed," according to District spokesman Fernando Gallard.

Who's opting-out

The parents at Feltonville are a part of a growing regional and national "opt-out" movement, with footholds in suburban New Jersey as well as big city districts like Chicago and Los Angeles.

Last year, members of Philadelphia City Council held a hearing on standardized testing and councilmembers Mark Squilla, Jannie Blackwell and Maria Quinones-Sanchez all signed a letter in support of Feltonville's opting-out parents last week.

These and other supporters of the opt-out movement highlight the fact that all students – regardless of whether they are English language learners (ELL) or have special education needs – take the same tests. That means that students known to perform at below grade level are still evaluated in their grade.

This brings down both individual students and cumulative evaluations of schools that serve a lot of high-needs students, according to opt-out supporters.

"'English language learners by definition don't know English," said Feltonville teacher Vici Smith. "They're two, three four levels behind. And then they're told about their failures, then the school is labeled as a failure."

According to Feltonville's Pennsylvania School Performance profile, about 20 percent of its students are ELL.

Over the past several months, members of the Caucus of Working Educators, a faction within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, held meetings to share information about opting-out with parents tied to schools across Philadelphia.

Parents at the Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences also received a form letter explaining that they may opt their children out of standardized tests like the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, or PSSAs, as well as internal tests like benchmarks.

Those letters - as well as conversations with teachers - struck a chord with parents like Belinda Brown. She decided to opt-out two of her children, Siarah, 12, and Christopher, 13, from some of their tests at Feltonville, a middle school.

State-wide tests like the PSSAs "don't necessarily tell you if that child is smart or not," said Brown. And she wonders if grades of "basic" and "proficient" - low to intermediate marks - may keep Christopher out of the high schools he wants to attend.

But she said she's not opposed to benchmarks and other tests that determine whether students are learning as they go. She thinks opting-out may "start the conversation so tests will be adjusted to each school," as opposed to comparing schools across the board.

Brown said she appreciates what the teachers have done to share information about opting out. "I hope they don't get in trouble for what they're standing up for."

"Investigatory conferences"

A letter from the District went out this week to teachers believed to be sharing information with parents about opting-out.

"We're looking into what was said, for what reason," said Gallard.

The letters from the District require select Feltonville teachers to attend one-on-one "investigatory conferences" held by their principal. An "investigatory conference" is not a disciplinary action, a type of punishment governed by organized labor laws.

While Gallard said that parents do have a right to opt-out of the PSSAs for "religious" reasons, he maintained that the wording of the form-letter filled out by parents implied that they could opt their children out of all tests, which he said is not the case.

Boosters of the opt-out movement point to one section of the Pennsylvania legal code as legal grounds for opting out. That section, Chapter Four specifically mentions "state assessment" as subject to religious exemption.

For any test, if 20 percent of students don't take the test that could have consequences beyond just those students. United Opt Out, a national anti-testing organization, puts the number of students needed to skew a test's scores by opting-out at only five percent.

"We're the first school in Philadelphia to make this happen," said Feltonville teacher Kelley Collings of the 20 percent mark. "So there are a lot of questions that lawmakers and bureaucrats are going to need to deal with" if those tests no longer assess as they were designed to.

Teachers at Feltonville who sent out the form-letters have not yet turned the signed copies over to their school. Students at the school may still have to take Benchmark and Access tests next week while the School District's investigation is underway.