Saturday, February 10, 2018

Technology in Education - Digital Classrooms

Guest Blog by Wrench in the Gears

Building Sanctuary: A Dystopian Future We Must Fight To Avoid

The next wave of education reform is one part of a much larger societal shift that hinges on the use of Big Data, predictive analytics, and digital profiling to control populations in a world of growing economic uncertainty and unrest. What follows is a speculative dystopian scenario, a world that could very well emerge from systems being put in place right now. It centers on two sisters, Cam and Li, who live in a near future New York where authorities have come to view human life primarily as a source from which to extract financial profit. Many elements of the story read like science fiction, but they are not. I’ve included links to sources at the end of each post so you can explore this reality for yourself.

The future is uncertain and unlikely to play out exactly as described. Nevertheless, we must begin to comprehend how technological developments combined with concentrated power and extreme income inequality are leading us to increasingly automated forms of oppression. My hope is that communities will begin to incorporate an understanding of this bigger picture into resistance efforts for public education and beyond. Let us join together, embracing our humanity, to fight the forces that would bring us to “lockdown.” How can we preserve our lives and those of our loved ones outside the data stream? How can we nurture community in a world where alienation is becoming normalized? What do we owe one another? What are we willing to risk? I have divided my story into seven parts. I hope you’ll read along and consider sharing it with others.

Click here for the full story: Building Sanctuary

Or read in parts:

Plugging In

Automated Education

About the author of Building Sanctuary and popular blog Wrench in the Gears:
A Skeptical Parent's Thoughts on Digital Curriculum
I am writing this blog in tribute to the critically important work on the history of education and its intersections with military research and automation done by brothers David and Douglas Noble. I hope that in some way my words can build upon the strong foundation they have laid.

Contact at:
Visit blog:  Wrench in the Gears

Popular and informative blog posts from Wrench in the Gears:

From Neighborhood Schools to Learning Eco-Systems, A Dangerous Trade

Stop! Don’t opt out. Read this first.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Urgent: Unauthorized Collection and Distribution of PA Student Data

Thank you to D.O. for this Guest Blog 

Urgent: Unauthorized collection and distribution of PA student data fall 2017 and ACTION ITEM at the end

Unbeknownst to parents across Pennsylvania, many middle and high school students will be administered the intrusive and disturbing PAYS (Pennsylvania Youth Survey) between September 11 and November 22, 2017. 

What is PAYS (Pennsylvania Youth Survey)
The survey questions can be found HERE 

This information from PAYS is used to identify changes in behavior and substance abuse, and to identify needs in the community. The data is also used in grant applications.  That all sounds noble and good. Unfortunately, there are three insidious problems with this survey.
Government intrusion
The 2017 PAYS is worse than ever. The survey (as usual) asks not just what the student does or thinks, but what parents, siblings, their closest friends, and neighbors do and think and feel, how close the student is with his parents and family members, and whether he goes to church. It effectively asks the student to spy on other people. You can see a copy of the 2017 PAYS survey questions <here>
Trigger warning advised
Some of the questions are so heartless that they should carry a trigger warning. If a student is already struggling, this survey could have devastating consequences. A survey is not a compassionate way to deal with serious crises in a young person’s life. Struggling students need people who care, not a dehumanizing survey tallying their heart break. The PAYS is taken anonymously, but the questions are excruciatingly personal in nature. 

Also, some of the questions are age inappropriate.  Consider that PAYS is asking 6th and 8th grader (age 12-14 years old) questions about drugs, guns, suicide and feelings towards their parents.

Lack of Consent
The third major issue is that this survey is given without written parental consent, which is required by state law

The law:  According to Title 22, Chapter 4, Item 4(d)  “School entities shall adopt policies to assure that parents or guardians have the following: (5) The right to have their children excluded from research studies or surveys conducted by entities other than a school entity unless prior written consent has been obtained.”
In practice: The rights of guardians are being blatantly disregarded as the push for data collection continues. Per the law, surveys require a parent to provide written consent.However, the PDE incorrectly tells school districts to use a passive opt in method, which is to say that everyone is opted in unless the parent chooses to opt out. The PDE also fails to tell districts that districts are responsible for notifying all parents of the upcoming survey and for providing opt out instructions. (One cannot presume a parent has opted in if the parent was not even notified of the survey.)

Most parents across the state only find out about the survey when their children come home and tell them about the upsetting survey they were forced to take, after the damage has already been done. Even then parents are unaware of their right to opt out of future surveys. As a result, very few parents across the state have had the opportunity to be informed and opt out.

Although the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) is responsible for statewide administration of the PAYS (Pennsylvania Youth Survey) and provides the procedures to the school districts, the PDE takes no responsibility for disseminating incorrect information.The PDE has stated that they will not revise their policies and that it’s not their fault if school districts fail to obtain the required written permission, even if they did so under the advice of the PDE. In the PDE’s eyes, the school districts are ultimately accountable for complying with state law, not the PDE.

This affects all current students in Pennsylvania in 6th, 8th, 10th, and 12thgrades in districts that have opted to participate (given biannually), as well as students in 6th through 12th grades in districts that receive certain federal community grants (annually).
Urgent call to action
Opt out
If your child is in 6th through 12th grades, opt them out. You can email your childs principal’s and teacher and request that your child is opted out of the PAYS survey. It just takes a minute! That way you can be sure that your student will not participate in this tragic data grab. 

Inbox all of your friends who are middle school or high school parents and tell them the can opt out, and share this blog post via social media.

Tell <xxx> that the PDE must comply with state education law and obtain written consent before surveying school-aged children.

Forward your email to the superintendent of your school district and add a link to this blog post reminding them that they are responsible for following state law.

Keep it simple. If we each take just a few minutes to do this, we will have a huge impact. Together we can make a difference for our children.

Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS)


From the PAYS website:
Since 1989, the Commonwealth has conducted a survey of school students in the 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th grades to learn about their behavior, attitudes and knowledge concerning alcohol, tobacco, other drugs and violence. The ‘Pennsylvania Youth Survey,’ or PAYS, is sponsored and conducted every two years by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.
This year PAYS will be administered to participating school sometime between September 11 and November 22, 2017.  Below are the survey questions.  Please review and if you would rather your child was not exposed to these questions, you can opt out by emailing your principal.

Email: and request the pdf version if you have a difficult time viewing the survey below.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Keystone Exam Update and PA ESSA Plan

Senate Bill 756, the bill co-sponsored by Senator's Dinniman and Eichelberger, to end the use of the Keystone Exams and offer other pathways to graduation (SAT), faced challenges from major education groups due to language added including parental input on teacher evaluations.  As a result, the bill was never brought to a vote in the Senate.  In the near future, similar separate bills will likely be introduced to eliminate the Keystone exams and an opt out bill that expands the current religious opt out option.  

In the meantime, we have a public comment opportunity with the PA ESSA plan.  Over the past 3 years there has been a tremendous increase in the number of students opted out of the state assessments.  The increase in opt out is concerning at the State and Federal level.  As a result, part of the ESSA plan includes language that would punish schools that have 5% or more students opt out of PSSA and/or Keystone Exams. The ESSA plan would implement "state-approved improvement plans" for schools with less than 95% participation.  As a result, parents and students would be pressured by their school principals and teachers to participate in the PSSA and Keystone exams and opting out would be discouraged.

From page 43 of the PA ESSA plan:
School-level participation rates will be published within the state’s annual public-facing school report cards. Schools with rates below 95 percent will be required to develop and implement state-approved improvement plans, and may be required to complete a school- or LEA-level assessment audit. 
Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is going to be finalized over the next few months.  The PDE has posted the draft plan for PA and a public comment section.  The comment period closes on August 31.  Please consider reviewing the plan and submitting your comments.  Each section asks for your input in 1000 words or less.  You don't have to comment on each section. At the end of the survey is an opportunity to submit additional comments - please consider submitting personal testimony here if the PSSA and/or Keystone exams has affected your child. 

The plan and link to the survey can be viewed HERE

Senator Dinniman thoughts on PA ESSA plan can be read HERE

Overview of the survey from the PDE website:
Individuals may choose to comment on as many or as few sections as they wish. The survey asks respondents to provide basic demographic data to inform aggregate analysis of the survey sample; however, all responses will be anonymous. 
This online survey provides an opportunity for open-ended comments relating to each major section of the plan, listed below, as well as a way to provide additional, written comments. 
• Introduction
• Section 1: Long Term Goals
• Section 2: Consultation and Performance Management
• Section 3: Academic Assessments
• Section 4: Accountability, Support and Improvement for Schools
• Section 5: Supporting Excellent Educators
• Section 6: Supporting All Students

Friday, June 2, 2017

Parent Testimony on Keystone Exams

June 2nd Senators Eichelberger and Dinniman Education Committee Hearing  
Elimination of the Keystone Exams and the Use of the Graduation Requirements

Parent Panel Participant Testimony 
by Dawn Sweeney

My name is Dawn Sweeney and I am a parent to five school aged children in Owen J. Roberts School District.  My oldest is the class of 2017 and my youngest is the class of 2028.  I have been actively involved with Keystone Exam issues for 5 years.  

I am also the author of a statewide blog called Opt Out Pennsylvania, which discuses Keystone exams issues. From mid-April to mid-May this year there were days that my blog had over 1,000 views.  This is significant considering the demographic is limited to parents of students who are in 8th, 9th and 10th grade.  In four weeks last month there were 18,539 views on: How to Opt Out of the Keystone Exams.  This is a clear indicator that the Keystone exam graduation requirement is adversely affecting quite a few students and that it’s a significant issue.

Students who don’t pass a Keystone are placed in remediation in the form of a class or online curriculum like Key Math or Study Island. These remedial classes are a general overview of Keystone exam content and do not address a students specific individual content area needs.  So the remediation is not individualized because neither students, or teachers get specific feedback on areas that a student needs improvement from the Keystone exam score. 

These remedial classes are an unfunded mandate that cost the school district financially and sometimes results in courses not being offered due to scheduling because teachers are pulled to cover a remedial class.

The people who score the Keystone exams are not required to have any teaching experience or any background in the tested areas of Algebra, English or Biology.  To be a Keystone exam scorer, proof of a college degree is all that is required.  Scorers are not required to be certified teachers and do not need to have any education experience. The scorers are paid $11-$14 an hour which is entry level pay.  35% of the English Keystone and 40% of the Algebra Keystone are graded by these under qualified scorers.

At my daughter high school they have 3 levels of classes, Standard, College Prep and Honors. Yet because of the Keystone exams, students are all preparing for the same test content which minimizes the distinction of Honors versus College Prep and Standard classes.

My daughter's class used a Keystone Guide to prepare for the constructed response portion of the English Keystone.  It describes the written portion of the exam where students are to write a paragraph.   On this Keystone Guide, students are told not to use “overly sophisticated language”, in other words, keep it basic.  Not something students are used to hearing in an Honors English class. More concerning is the way they are told to write the paragraph for the Keystone exam, specifically to put the thesis statement as the first sentence, not the at or near the end of the paragraph.  Writing is a cornerstone skill, and the Keystone exams asks that students place a thesis statement incorrectly in a paragraph.  I suspect the reason for this is for ease of scoring as the scorers can be instructed to look at the first sentence as the thesis statement.

I want to emphasize that is not the fault of teachers, rather it's the Keystone mandate that forces teacher to teach to the test, even when it goes against their professional training and proper writing techniques.

College admissions do not consider the Keystone exams in any capacity.  Yet, they are given at the same time students are preparing for SAT/ACT and need to maintain a good GPA – which are all things that colleges do consider for admissions. The Keystone exams take valuable educational time away from students during critical high school years. That the PDE considers putting Keystone exam scores on transcripts demonstrates their lack of understanding that the Keystone exams are not a component of the college admissions process.

In closing, I would like to tell you about two local students.  Grace is a sophomore at West Chester East High School.  She has taken the Biology and Algebra Keystone twice and failed to meet the passing benchmark. She participated in the recommended remediation, including in school and after school support. Grace's combined grade on her second Biology attempt was lower than the first. Algebra performance was better on second trial, falling 6 points short of passing.

She currently has the literature test looming. Grace has a diagnosis of a reading disability. Her prognosis for passing a language arts based measure is questionable. She meets the criterion for a 504 plan but not an IEP thus requiring her to meet all the graduation standards of the regular education curriculum.

She is left with the option of opting out. However, each test opt out would require 15-20 hours to complete a project based assessment; consider tripling that if she fails all three Keystones. Project based assessments would take the place of electives in Grace's schedule. Most would agree that electives are essential to a well-rounded education. To complicate matters further, it is questionable if Grace would acquire the number of credits required for graduation if one accounted for lost electives.

Shane is currently a sophmore at Norristown Area High School.  He failed the Algebra Keystone freshman year by a slight margin.   He had Keystone Remediation class for a semester during his sophmore year knocking out his chance of having JROTC, a class he loved and performed well in his freshman year.

Shane attended Central Montgomery County VoTechnical School for Networking Technology. He has a 95 average in this course and 2 certifications that he can use in real life work.  He will have 3 dual enrollment credits to Montgomery County Community College in this field of study.  He has excelled and feels very confident, plus has a career path!  However, Shane has been threatened that if he fails any of the Keystones that he may not be able to attend Tech school next year. 

Grace and Shane represent many other students who are in similar situations due to the Keystone graduation requirement.  These students are on the brink of their junior year and wonder if they will get the chance to graduate if they pass all subjects. I think that question needs to be extensively and exhaustively considered by the legislature. The ramifications could be tremendous for Grace and Shane, and thousands of Pennsylvania students statewide who pass all of their high school classes and requirements but have their 12 years of schooling reduced to the dubious results of a single test.

Thank you for considering the issues presented today.  I urge you to do whatever you can to eliminate the Keystone graduation requirement.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Keystone Exams Class 2017 and 2018

From the Keystone Handbook For Assessment Coordinators HERE on page 8 (emphasis added):
The current regulation requires that beginning with the class of 2019, students must demonstrate proficiency on the Algebra I, Biology, and Literature Keystone Exams in order to graduate. Therefore, any student in grade 10 or below during the 2016-17 school year is required to demonstrate proficiency on the Keystone Exams in order to graduate. 
This affirms that students in the class of 2017 and 2018 are not required to demonstrate proficiency on the Keystone Exams.  Also from page 8 of the Handbook:
Because the Keystone Exams for Algebra I, Biology, and Literature replaced the grade 11 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) in mathematics, reading, and science for the purpose of satisfying federal accountability requirements, all students must participate in the Algebra I, Biology, and Literature Keystone Exams by spring of their grade 11 year.  
The federal accountability requirements states that testing is to be administered in grades 3-8 and once in 11th grade.  The federal requirement DOES NOT mandate that students take the test.

On page 11 of the Handbook:

d.  Student had a parental exclusion based on other reasons: If a parent refuses to have his/her student participate in the assessment but does not provide a reason in accordance with Chapter 4 rules, school personnel must select “Student had a parental exclusion based on other reasons.” Students who do not participate in the assessment due to parental request will negatively affect the school’s participation rate and can potentially have a negative impact on the school’s accountability status.
Parents are not required to review the Keystone exams per the above statement which is also found on the first page of the Keystone Exam testing booklet.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Opt Out Keystone Exams 2.0 - Letter

Senate Bill 880 is legislation that nullified the state Keystone Exam graduation requirement until the class of 2019 and beyond.  Many students across Pennsylvania have taken these exams multiple times, been placed in remedial classes and/or made to take an alternative project with a minimun score requirement to graduate.  As many as 60% of students are not passing the Keystone exams while passing the Algebra 1, Biology and English classes. The below sample letter and information is provided for those wish to opt out.

Students who are up against taking the Keystone Exams this May can opt out with no recourse according to the SB 880 legislation.  The request must be in writing and can be sent via email or regular mail.  I suggest email so that there is a record.  Preferably you would get a response via email for your records.  However, many school administrators will make a phone call instead so there is no record of what they've said.  If that is the case, take notes, write an email stating "Thank you for speaking with me on [DATE] regarding the Keystone Exams where you stated "... " .  Provide details of the phone conversation for your records and email it back to them.


Dear Superintendent,

Pursuant to Pennsylvania Code Title 22 Chapter 4, section 4.4 (d)(4) I am hereby exercising my right as a parent to have my child, [NAME], excused from Keystone testing.   Senate Bill 880, which was signed into legislation by Govenor Wolf on February 3, 2016, states that the use of the Keystone exams shall be delayed until the 2018-2019 school year.  For your reference the wording of SB 880 (emphasis added):
(1)  Notwithstanding section 2604-B(b)(2)(v), 22 Pa. Code §   4.24 (relating to high school graduation requirements), 4.51 (relating to State assessment system) or 4.51c (relating to project-based assessment) or any statute or regulation to the contrary, the use of the Keystone Exams as a graduation requirement or as a benchmark for the need for participation in a project-based assessment shall be delayed until the 2018-2019 school year.
For clarification purposes "Notwithstanding ... or any statute or regulation to the contrary" is a legal statement that covers any and all other state or local regulations and mandates.  That means this statement nullifies PA School Codes:  4.24 (relating to high school graduation requirements), 4.51 (relating to State assessment system) or 4.51c (relating to project-based assessment).  This also means that a local requirement to pass the Keystone Exams or Project, or Alternative/Remedial class is NULLIFIED for the two years that Act 1 is in effect, until 2019 and beyond.

For further clarification purposes, "... the use of the Keystone Exams as a graduation requirement or as a benchmark for the need for participation in a project-based assessment shall be delayed until the 2018-2019 school year.

Legal language is clear here "shall be delayed" until the 2018-2019 school year.  SB 880 can be found HERE

Thank you for your attention in this matter.  If you need to contact me, please do so via email at this address.



Parents, by now we all can recognize that the PDE and school administrators DO NOT have the best interest of students in Pennsylvania.  This is clearly evident at the high rates of students who are not passing and are re-testing multiple times, placed in remedial classes and placed in "project" based classes where a student uses a computer to take assessments on programs like Study Island until they score a minimum (usually 70%).  Most of these students have already passed the class and are still re-testing a year or two later.  As many as 60% of students are not passing the Keystone exams annually.  Think about that for a moment - there are more students not passing than students that are passing!  

What might happen if you opt out?  Your child might be threatened with not graduating, they might be told they are mandated to take a remedial type project like Study Island or nothing.  However, the legislation supports opting out with no repercussions.  If necessary, demand in writing reasons why they require and alternate pathway to the Keystone graduation requirement.  I will personally take each to Senator Dinniman for a potential class action law suit against the PDE.

The only action we as parents can take is to opt out - its the only action that has a consequence and that school administrators must respond to.  Discussions with school administrators will not have any impact aside from a condescending smile and 'thanks for your input, our hands are tied".  If we don't take action, these insidious testing mandates won't change.