Pittsburgh ESL Teacher Refuses to Give State Exams

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Reviewed by Mary McLaughlin, Ma-TESOL; M.S. SpEd

While many teachers have expressed concern that the current levels of testing on their students are excessive and counterproductive, Pittsburgh ESL teacher Mary King drew national attention by refusing to give Pennsylvania’s state tests to her students. Pennsylvania requires all of its ESL students to take the state’s System of State Assessment (PSST) tests to ascertain how well they are learning.

While ESL students who have been in the US less than a year don’t have to take the English language arts PSSA, they do have to take the ones for math and science, but are allowed accommodations such as pictures on some of the exams and word-to-word translation dictionaries without definitions.

King recalled one student who was in her first week and had to take the math test. Her only understanding of English was thank you, goodbye, and hello. She cried the whole time. Another student had never been to school before and didn’t understand the concept of writing.

This teacher feels that extensive testing of students who are extremely new to English will set them back. After receiving a note from a new ELL that read “Learn English is the best thinks a never have in my life,” King decided not to give the PSSAs. Her ESL students were scheduled for between 7 and 20 hours of PSSA tests. She declared her intention in an op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in which she claimed to be a conscientious objector.

Although her school district insisted that the state and federal government require the tests, King is retiring this school year, so the district is not pursuing the matter. King received a huge ovation when she read her letter at a building meeting, and several teachers broke down in tears. She thought that meant that other teachers had seen the negative impact that this testing had on their students.

Educators think that King is a rarity, although Pennsylvania’s Department of Education cannot track such teachers, because the school districts don’t have to report such cases. There have been scattered national reports of teachers who refuse to give standardized tests, and it remains to be seen whether this trend will become a movement.