Central has largest number of religious opt-outs in county

Gov. Tom Wolf, speaks with Central York students  Cole Bailey, left,  Maddie Frazier and Isabella Kostic, right, in their Apollo class, during the Schools That Teach Tour Monday, Dec. 19, 2016, at Central York High School in Springettsbury Township. Amanda J. Cain photo

Central York School District this year had a significant number of religious opt-outs from standardized tests — substantially more than any other district in the county.

Although opt-outs are relatively low statewide, Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Eric Levis said, districts with significant numbers could see an impact on test scores — a concern relevant to Central, considering the district has some of the lowest scores on state exams in York County.

"In those districts, schools’ participation rates might decline enough to affect accountability measures in accordance with federal law," he said.

The district had 510 religious opt-outs across all grade levels in Keystone exams and Pennsylvania System of School Assessments, according to state data.

The only other districts that came close were Dallastown Area School District, with 247 opt-outs this year, and Red Lion Area School District with 95.

This is significant because, according to research from FairTest, a national nonprofit focused on testing accuracy, as of 2018, Pennsylvania was the only state with an explicit provision for religious exemption.

Oregon, Utah and California also allow opt-outs for any reason, including religion, said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest.

Most of the county’s 16 public school districts had religious opt-outs in the single digits per grade level for one assessment, whereas Central had almost 70 in eighth grade math and science alone.

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"We cannot speak on behalf of the parents who are choosing to opt-out and how their religious beliefs impact that decision," said district spokeswoman Julie Randall Romig in an email.

The district had just 178 opt-outs last year, but it had 500 in 2017 and 264 in 2016.

The volume of opt-outs is significant because it could be contributing to Central's declining test scores, which trailed the state average in PSSA English and math and were among the lowest in the county this year.

"Can we make any generalizations based on what seems to be the rapidly increasing number of people opting out?" board member Gregory Lewis asked at a recent meeting.

Central York Middle School Principal Kelly Harper said more than 100 students opted out of testing, for religious reasons or otherwise, in her building alone.

"I am a little cautious when we look at the data, because it is not representative of our entire school," she said.

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Levis' data showed there were 19,890 religious opt-outs statewide this year, which remains about level with last year’s 19,894. There were 21,753 in 2017.

They follow a national trend of declining opt-outs since the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015 changed the testing standards nationally, taking away many of the harsh consequences for low performance and reducing the length and number of tests, Schaeffer said.

But under the ESSA, districts must still reach a 95% participation rate on state assessments.

Under state law, the district must inform parents of their right to opt out, though officials also cannot "excessively promote opting-out in a way that would influence a parent’s decision," Romig said.

The law does not require parents or guardians to expound on their reasoning for a religious opt-out, so the district is unable to determine why these opt-outs remain high.

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The National Association of Secondary School Principals notes that, nationally, parents have tended to opt out in opposition to Common Core standards, the number of tests and amount of time spent on them, and an overreliance on test scores.

One parent publicly shared her reasoning in a lengthy letter to Pittsburgh Public Schools in 2015, which was reposted in a Washington Post article.

"Standardized testing, tied to an ever more standardized common core curriculum, sorts students into categories ('below basic,' 'basic,' etc.)," said Jessie B. Ramey in the letter, noting that this thinking goes against her values as a Unitarian Universalist.

"There are serious consequences to this sorting and labeling (see below), but the underlying premise of this standardized high-stakes-testing is to compare and rank students — not to support the individual learning of each student," she wrote.

"The opposition to standardized testing is very unusual in that you find people at both ends of this political spectrum," Schaeffer said. "An intersection of those who don’t agree on much else."