Op/Ed: Keep calm and carry on with standardized tests

By Jeff Hellrung, Director, Unionville-Chadds Ford Board of Education


Jeff Hellrung

When you send your children to school, don’t you want to know that they can perform to clear and reasonable standards that will give them foundational skills for eventual readiness for college or careers? We have those standards in our public schools. They are the PA Academic Standards. We also have valid and reliable assessments to determine whether or not students have mastered the standards. These are our PSSA tests which are given in grades 3-8 in language arts and math and in grades 4 and 8 in science.

These assessments are invaluable both to students and to their teachers and school district administrators. They give critical feedback on student learning and progress. Teachers and administrators can use those test results to develop strategies to help students who are lagging in specific areas and we can also identify and correct any gaps in instructional programs. Isn’t this just common sense? Doesn’t any profession that wants to succeed and be taken seriously need to adopt and adhere to an appropriate set of standards?

So why are is there such a fuss about our state standards and testing? There is a lot of misinformation from the extreme right and the extreme left who have their own agendas to promote. Also, too many public school superintendents are howling that excessive high stakes testing is unfair and overly stressful to children. Delivering these assessments once per year for six years is not excessive. Neither does taking those assessments have to be stressful to children, unless the adults responsible for their education make it stressful for them.

Too many of our school district superintendents have resisted the accountability that comes with our PA Academic Standards and our PSSA testing. To their credit, our past and current Unionville-Chadds Ford Superintendents and teachers have embraced our state standards and accepted accountability for the performance of our students. They have used the PSSA results to address the particular needs of each student. They have  ensured that our students are prepared for but not overstressed taking those tests.

Parents, don’t fall for the smokescreens. Our state educational standards and testing are challenging but reasonable. They are readily accessible at the Pa Dept of Education website. Read them for yourself. The standards are not about “rote learning”. They are about reading and writing skills, understanding math and science, critical thinking, and problem solving. They do not require “teaching to the test”. They should be embedded in school curriculum. They do not require excessive test preparation. Districts that spend large amounts of time on test preparation should scale back. The formula for success in our public schools is straightforward. Excellent curriculum plus great teaching equals student achievement. Success on PSSA testing is a byproduct.

I don’t claim that success in PSSA testing is the only measure of success for our schools or even that it is the most important. What is most important is helping students become capable and resilient adults and well rounded citizens who will be prepared to lead meaningful and productive lives. Academic standards and assessment are only a part of what we do in our schools but they are an important and foundational part. Parents, insist on accountability from your school districts and your children.

Support our PA Academic Standards and PSSA assessments. Keep calm and carry on.

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  1. Helen says:

    For all who want to know exact information regarding times for testing and specific information about individual tests for grades 3-8, here is the link to The Handbook for Assessment Coordinators, 2015.


    On pages 41-44, you will find the Information for Parents or Guardians and this details the process. There is no longer a separate writing test. Constructed responses (writing prompt, short answer) are included in the ELA test and are given each year 3-8. Of course, the type of written response is different for the 3-5 group than for the 6-8 group. The times for ELA and math combined indicate from 6-8 hours. The science test given two years is 2-4 hours. On page 36 you will find information for managing extended time. Students with IEPs and service documents indicating extended time must receive this extended time. There is also a statement regarding students who work slowly receiving extended time as long as the test administrator has seen evidence of the student working throughout the test. The times for the tests include time for directions, which you will see on these pages. Of course, all of the materials must be handled securely as far as distribution and collection and this takes additional time. The time factor is important when discussing these tests as many are concerned with the time testing takes from important instructional time and also the increasing time that students are being required to sit for testing. I believe that all questions about time and specific information about testing will be found in this booklet.

  2. Jeff Hellrung says:

    We do rely on our Administrative Staff to monitor classrooms and evaluate teachers. However, I visit classrooms every year. The teaching and learning that I get to personally witness and the excitement and engagement of our students is the “pay” I get as a School Board Director.

    By the way, why am I the only person in these posts using his real name? It’s OK folks, we are only exercising our First Amendment rights to free expression. What happened to the land of the free and the home of the brave?

    • TE RES says:

      Easy for someone with the power and control to label others cowardly for believing that retribution is real and experiencing that retaliation exists for “exercising First Amendment Rights to free expression.” Just look what happened to Holly Manzone and Bruce Yelton when they used their “real names” in posts and letters and in “real life” They were bullied, intimidated, name called and one’s behavior was diagnosed in public by a sitting Board Member who, to my knowledge, has no training or credentials in such areas. Citizens have a Supreme Court, Constitutional right to post anonymously, and if you don’t like that, then maybe it’s time to give someone else a try.

      • TE RES says:

        Oh, and I chuckle to myself every time I hear or read about a SBDirector play the under dog about the “pay” they get or don’t get. No one asked you to run. If you want to get paid, get a job that pays.

        It should be an honor and a privilege for you to serve your fellow citizens in this elected volunteer position If you resent the terms, then don’t run again. I don’t feel sorry for you.

  3. Anonymous says:

    It would be nice if people that try to report facts and judge the educators, would come into the schools and see what is really happening. Sad thing is they never will.

    • TE RES says:

      It’s true. Board Members come to believe (especially the long serving ones) that they have a profound understanding of the way education works when in reality, the opposite is true. They morph into de facto Adminstrators, only listening to information that is run through the Supt. filter, rubbing stamping anything they want. Just look at the segment that gets generous pay increases year after year, while at the very same time, (wow, tone deaf) they cut pay and outsource employees who actually have contact with students.

      • Jeff Hellrung says:

        That can happen to board members though I believe that most do a good job evaluating information, being independent, and doing their due diligence. The most important job is hiring an excellent Superintendent. Having done that, she should usually be able to earn the support of the board.

        At UCFSD all three employee groups have accepted pay freezes in two of the last six years. Administrative staff was reduced from 24 to 18. I think that all employee groups have done very well making sure that our students get a fine education.

  4. TE RES says:

    Go to: http://www.mainlinemedianews.com/articles/2015/05/11/main_line_suburban_life/news/doc5550dfd6e0080364064512.txt?viewmode=fullstory

    The Pennsylvania Core Standards, the state’s version of the nationwide Common Core that began to be implemented in March 2014, were the topic of a forum Thursday presented by the Leagues of Women Voters of Chester County, Haverford, Lower Merion, Narberth and Radnor at Radnor Middle School.


    Very good article about this topic

  5. Helen says:

    If you would like to look at a PSSA manual for test administration you will find it on the Pennsylvania Department of Education website. The information about times for the ELA (English Language Arts) tests, grades 3-8, Mathematics tests, grades 3-8 and science tests, grades 4 & 8 are on pages 31-34 of the manual. I would, however, suggest that you take a look at the entire manual. This might give you a better sense of what we are talking about when we talk about state testing. The ELA tests take between 4-5 hours (includes reading directions) from grades 3-8. The mathematics tests take between 3 1/2- 4 hours (includes reading directions) from grades 3-8. The science tests are given in grades 4 and 8 and take from 2-3 hours (including directions). You must include the time for directions as the students are actively involved in this aspect of the testing. These times are just for each test and do not include the distribution and collection of test materials, which can take some time. You might want to look at this section of the administration manual. The directions oftentimes involve students manipulating pages from the test booklet and the answer booklet and this can get confusing for them. The test administrators must keep a careful eye on all students in the room, at the same time. Take a careful look at some of these directions.

    Go to Pennsylvania Department of Education and click in lower left on State Assessment System. Continue to Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). Click on Test Administration Materials near bottom, lower right. Click on 1st link – 2015 Handbook – All Subjects PDF.

    • Sandy Beach says:

      Helen, you are absolutely correct. The other factor is that the PSSA tests are untimed. So….many students continue working longer in an “extra time” room. These students are sometimes frustrated and just give up. Other times, they work diligently, in some cases, for another hour or more. It is very accurate to say that in some grades where ELA, math, science, and writing are administered, students are being tested for at least 14 hours. That is the reality.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The PA website may say 7 hours, but that’s not what happened. I teach in an elementary school in a chester county district and it takes much longer. The tests last for 7 days. We start in the morning and we usually go to 11. So that would be 2 hours a day, for a total of 14 days. As a parent of a third grader I chose to opt my daughter. I know my daughters progress and I don’t need a standardized test to tell me that. The testing companies are making big bucks and the districts are wasting so much money administrating them. Pretty sure WCASD stated it takes more than $600,000.

    • Jeff Hellrung says:

      There is much alarm and misinformation from WCASD and TESD. I’m proud of our UCFSD and teachers for accepting accountability and delivering great results for our kids. The tests are timed. The annual tests take five hours. In the two writing years add one more hour. In the two different science testing years add two more hours. Time taking the tests is therefore 5,6, or 7 hours. I did not count time to give instructions to the test takers. This is minimal. I’ve done it for many years, I did not count extra time that a very few students take when that is needed or requested.

      • Helen says:

        As I pointed out earlier, take a look at the pages in the test manual and ask teachers, administrators and students how much time they spend on testing. Time for directions must be counted as students are actively involved in the process of taking the tests. Your information is not accurate according to the test manual. The facts are on those pages. Perhaps someone might ask administrators from the district for the schedule of testing from this year. You are an elected official and I would hope that you would present the facts and not just your version.

  7. Helen says:

    Mr. Hellrung,
    Your information about the hours involved in these tests is incorrect. I administered the PSSA tests in a nearby middle school for several years. There is a reading section that takes several hours, a writing section that takes several hours and a math section that takes several hours. We spread the tests out over many days so that students would not become test weary. The hours used to give these tests added up to many more than those that you state. I know this for a fact because I was there administering them. These tests are too long and oftentimes the directions are not age appropriate for the students. It was obvious to me that the tests were not always written by individuals familiar with students and learning.

    I live in the UCFSD and as a taxpayer I would like someone to find out how much it costs for the State of PA to construct, administer, correct and report the results of these PSSA tests. Then, I would like all concerned to take a look at that number and determine if there is a better way to monitor student progress. I would say that there is and that way would be for each district to determine curriculum, create benchmarks and monitor student progress. When we permit the state or federal government to determine standards for us, we are putting the test first. When we create and monitor our standards, we are returning to our individual districts the education of our students. The teachers and administration of the UCFSD, this top rated district, are more than qualified to take on the task of creating benchmarks that reflect the rigorous curriculum taught and also to monitor the progress of our students. So are most of the other school districts in the State of PA.

    Of Course, if we return the task of testing and monitoring our students to the local level, we might have to give up the bragging rights for being the top district. We might also have to give up the discussion of this top rated district in the real estate offices in this area. However, we will no longer be supporting the big business of testing in this country. I want my tax dollars to go to the education of students not to large companies selling long involved tests that do not give us anymore information than our own educators would be able to give us, creating tests and monitoring student progress. When I hear politicians standing up and saying that they want their country back, I think that, for starters, I would just like the school district returned to the local level so that we might get on with giving our students the best education. State testing is big business just as federal control of our educational system has become big business. In a time when our government is attempting to take control of so many aspects of our lives, I believe that at the local level we should stand up and say “NO” we have control of our local school district. This would be in the best interest of our students.

    • Jeff Hellrung says:

      Public education in our country is a partnership between local districts and states. It’s an imperfect partnership but a functional and adaptive one. Developing academic standards and assessments independently in 500 school districts in PA would be a nightmare and hugely expensive. To me, it makes much more sense to collaborate on academic standards and testing as we have done. Our standards came from a cooperative effort from state governors and chief school district administrators. The result was more consistent, appropriate, and challenging standards in the 45 or states that adopted them. Teaches had input to standards and our teachers continue to serve on committees that revise and update PSSA. Our kids in the Philly suburbs, in the inner cities of Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or Harrisburg, or in central rural districts all need the knowledge and skills expressed in the standards when they go on to college or the workplace. We need to support this teaching and learning to best support our kids.

  8. Helen says:

    Mr. Hellrung,
    Your hours for testing are incorrect for the middle school. I administered these tests in a nearby district for many years. There is a reading test that takes several hours, a writing test that takes several hours and a math test that takes several hours. We spread these tests out over many days and I know for a fact, because I was administering these tests, that they take longer than the hours you state. They are too long and the directions are not always age appropriate, causing confusion for many students. In some cases it is obvious that those who have written the directions have never spent even an hour in a school or worked with children. I live in the UCSFD and as a taxpayer of the State of PA I would like someone to find out just how much money is spent on these tests: the construction of the tests, the administration of these tests and the correcting and reporting of results of these tests. Then, take a long look at that number for each district and for the state and ask this question: Is there a better way, a more efficient way, a less expensive way to monitor student progress? My answer is definitely YES! The teachers and administrators in this district, this top rated district, are perfectly capable of establishing curriculum, creating benchmarks for student progress and for monitoring student progress. So are teachers and administrators in most of the districts in this and other states. When we use state standards for testing, we put the test before the curriculum. We encourage teaching the test. When we use district standards and district created tests, we put the students and their mastery of the curriculum first. Of course, without these long, expensive tests, we no longer have those bragging rights that come from being ranked first. We no longer can tout our test scores in real estate offices. And, we regain control of our school district–something that I believe is extremely important in this day and age of our government wanting to take over so many aspects of our lives. Education is about the students, not about increasing real estate values and holding bragging rights. We need to make certain that our tax dollars go to improving the education of each student. Right now we are supporting a very big business, the business of testing in this country. I, for one, would like the education and testing of our students to be returned to our school districts rather than our supporting the big business of testing in America.

  9. Rocky Hill says:

    The PA teachers union (PSEA) and the NJ teachers union (NJEA) and the NY teachers union have all come out strongly against standardized testing. Many are calling for parents to opt out of testing. We’re seeing expensive commercials attacking standardized testing in prime time. Are the teachers really being selfless by voicing concern with the supposed student stress and missed learning opportunities? Or is the recent union activity around standardized testing a self-serving effort to avoid teacher evaluation and accountability?

  10. Sandy Beach says:

    I agree that standards are necessary to ensure that all students are taught the same critical academic skills. However, the skills and testing protocols need to be appropriate for the age levels of the students. “They do not require “teaching to the test”.” This is absolutely false. “They should be embedded in school curriculum.” They are. However, many adults would not be able to comprehend the complex language structure of the questions and tasks that are asked of our young students. They absolutely require specific instruction and much practice. Granted, many students do well. However, some students are becoming “curricularly disabled” and turned off to school due to developmentally inappropriate expectations. “They do not require excessive test preparation.” This is false, too. An inordinate amount of daily and specific test preparation occurs in every school that administers the PSSA’s. The only time there is a sense of freedom to take a break and do something creative that is student driven is after the tests are administered. Once you have witnessed students working for 3-4 hours plus for 6 days to complete the PSSA tests, you will begin to understand why educators, parents and other concerned individuals question their merit and the need to revise and revamp. It shouldn’t be about politics or money making for publishing/test companies. It should be about what is right for children. In closing, I absolutely agree that “what is most important is helping students become capable and resilient adults and well rounded citizens who will be prepared to lead meaningful and productive lives.” Unfortunately, there is less and less time in a school day to devote to activities and lessons that foster important social and emotional coping skills that will develop resiliency and other lifelong social and emotional skills.

    • TE RES says:

      Thank-you Sandy Beach.

      Below are links to articles handed out at the April 27th gathering of parents, teachers and students from Radnor, TE and L.M. to discuss

      Standardized: Lies, Money & Civil Rights—
      How Testing is Ruining Public Education
      Monday, April 27, 7-9PM
      The Saturday Club, 117 West Wayne Avenue, Wayne, PA

      “Test prep works. Test prep taught me to immerse myself in the logic of the test-makers, and how to effectively game the system to achieve my goal: a passing score.
      Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post, April, 24, 2015
      “Why it’s so Scary that test prep works”

      “The Wisdom Deficit in Schools”
      “New education standards emphasize technical Reading skills over an appreciation for literature and the deeper values it can install.”
      Michael Godsey, The Atlantic January 23, 2015

      The country’s disregard for the institutional transfer of cultural wisdom is evident with this single observation: None of the state assessments has a single question about the content of any classic literature. They only test on reading skills, so teachers now prioritize these skills over content. This arrangement, in theory, allows students to read the literature on their own, when they get their own time—and I’m fine with that. But then, where are they getting the time and space to appreciate the deeper lessons of classic literature, to evaluate its truth and appropriately apply it to their own lives?


      Go to: http://www.tesd.net/Page/8802 to read about:
      Support of House Bill 168 – Eliminating Keystone Exams as a Graduation Requirement

    • Jeff Hellrung says:

      What a great example of the smoke screens I am warning about. The PSSA Reading and Math tests are given every year in grades 3-8 and take a combined maximum time of less than 5 hours. PSSA Writing is added in 2 years. It takes one hour. In two different years, PSSA Science is added. It takes less than 2 hours. So, in any year, the maximum testing time is less than 7 hours, not 18-24 hours. Anyone can get the facts on PSSA testing on the Pa Dept of Education web site. The tests have been carefully developed by experts including PA teachers. They have been proven to be both valid (they measure what they are supposed to measure) and reliable (the test results are consistent and repeatable). Schools who have great curriculum and great teaching will be teaching to the standards as a minimum foundation. Excessive test prep is not required. Their students will usually do fine on PSSA tests. If they don’t do well, our teachers and administers develop a plan to help them catch up. If they find weaknesses in our curriculum or delivery, they fix it. Parents, don’t be fooled. Keep calm and carry on!

      • TE RES says:


        The following is a quote from a TE teacher.

        “The administration, along with high level support area teachers, continue to stress that we will not be a district that teaches towards a test… but, year after year I feel more pressure to teach towards the test.”


        I don’t know if Sandy Beach is a teacher or not but she/he sounds like one and states above:

        They do not require “teaching to the test”.” This is absolutely false. “They should be embedded in school curriculum.” They are. However, many adults would not be able to comprehend the complex language structure of the questions and tasks that are asked of our young students. They absolutely require specific instruction and much practice. Granted, many students do well. However, some students are becoming “curricularly disabled” and turned off to school due to developmentally inappropriate expectations. “They do not require excessive test preparation.” This is false, too. An inordinate amount of daily and specific test preparation occurs in every school that administers the PSSA’s.

        It sounds like Test prep may not be required, but Districts and teachers are feeling the pressure to teach to the tests. Is it your position that this is not true?

        • Jeff Hellrung says:

          I’m happy to respond to the question about teaching to the test. First, and most importantly, we have to teach something. What do we teach? We teach, as an academic foundation, the things that our students need to know, and be able to do, at their level of academic development. These are expressed in our PA academic standards. So, we teach to the standards. Now what should we test? Obviously, we should test to what extent our students have met the standard. Of course we teach to the test. Teaching anything else would make no sense. What else should we teach to?

          Now, having said that, why did I deny that the PSSA requires teaching to the test? Notice that I put it in parentheses. This is because I recognize that, to many people, “teaching to the test” means activities unconnected to real teaching and learning like scamming the test or rote memorization. This we should not do and do not need to do. All we need from our schools is excellent curriculum and great teaching. If we have that, our students will be well served.

          By the way, if you are taking a test to get a drivers license or to become a registered nurse or to be a certified welder, don’t you want to be taught to the test? The test measures the knowledge and skills you need to practice your profession! Likewise in education, we have reasonable but challenging academic standards. We teach to those standards, as a minimum foundation, and test to those standards. It’s unfortunate that “teaching to the test” has become a bad thing when it is only common sense.

          • Anonymous says:

            I understand academic standards, Mr. Hellrung. The question I have, that you continue to avoid answering relates to test preparation. This is also part of teaching to the test. How much class time is dedicated to teaching kids how to take a test? To get excited about taking a test? How much is the district spending on programs like Study Island which are DESIGNED to teach students how to take these tests? Do you deny that our schools have integrated this into their curriculum?

      • Anonymous says:

        Jeff, your quote of 7 hours is definitely not accurate. Especially not at the high school. My son took the PSAT, which is required by the school, an ACT prep test, the SAT, which we need to take and honestly serves as a better benchmark for a child’s development, a Keystone test, and numerous hours of some inane test prep called study island. All of that likely adds up to 18 hours of both taking a test as well as test prep. Perhaps you should examine how much testing does go on in the schools before writing an op/ed about the importance of testing.

        • TE RES says:

          Anonymous makes a great point. However, I disagree that

          “the SAT, which we need to take and honestly serves as a better benchmark for a child’s development.”

          The SAT is basic information manipulated in a clever way. As Anon., states kids in UCF, TE, Radnor (wealthy doistricts, who can afford it) take Sat prep classes and “learn” how to a take (game) the test. These prep classes teach “tricks” on how to determine the right answer. It’s a game. They’re not learning anything but how to game the system. That’s why the SAT’s are being revamped. It’s not fair to less wealthy families who cannot afford expensive prep classes.

          Test prep works. Test prep taught me to immerse myself in the logic of the test-makers, and how to effectively game the system to achieve my goal: a passing score.
          Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post, April, 24, 2015
          “Why it’s so Scary that test prep works”

        • Jeff Hellrung says:

          My maximum estimate of 7 hours for the PSSA in grades 3-8 is perfectly accurate. In fact, it’s a worst case scenario. To be more specific, it’s less than 7 hours in the two years when science is given, less than 6 hours in the two years when writing is given, and less than 5 hours in the two years when only math and reading are given. My op-Ed was ONLY about PSSA.

          I will look into high school test requirements in detail on another day but I can report now that high school PSSA testing is no longer required by the state. It has been replaced by three Keystone Exams in English, Algebra, and Biology which is a considerable reduction in state mandated test time and which requires no test prep beyond normal study for the high school final exam that is always given at the end of these courses.

          Unfortunately, most colleges require the SAT or ACT because of inconsistency of standards and academic performance and rampant grade inflation nationwide. There is no need to take both SAT and ACT and a growing number of colleges require neither. Most states, including PA, have strengthened academic standards and implemented meaningful testing to those standards so our country is on the right track if we can persevere.

          Our UCF kids, with the strong support of their parents and teachers have always done well but never better than they are doing now. Hang in there folks and stay the course!

          • TE RES says:

            “My op-Ed was ONLY about PSSA.”

            That’s the point. You can’t just talk about PSSA’s when making comments about standardized testing in schools.

            SAT prep is required, PSSA prep is required, keystone prep is required to achieve a competitive score to match other districts and other students in wealthy districts vying for the same coveted spots in college. Even then, only a small percentage of students gain acceptance to top tier schools.

            Whether you’re for standardized tests or not, students and teachers spend an enormous amount of time prepping for all of these tests.

          • Anonymous says:

            Jeff, to say that PSSAs are no longer required in high school, but keystones are is playing semantics. And with all of these tests, there is an inordinate amount of class time and homework assigned for prep. You say that it is only a few hours. Can you comment on specific policies in your schools regarding this? What about the use of Study Island which some students may spend several hours completing each requirement? Or could you comment on how much the district spends on test prep programs such as Study Island?

          • Jeff Hellrung says:

            Replacing PSSA with Keystone was a big deal. TE School District made a video in 2008 complaining that PSSA impacted nine instructional days for math, reading, and writing only. To that must be added time for science. Keystones are like three final exam that students already prepare for. They can even replace the local final exams, at the discretion of the local district. So, going from 10-12 instruction days impacted to three end of course exams is a big change for the better. As to test prep and Study Island, our district is looking into that now. We are committed to achieve through great curriculum and great teaching so if we find we are overdoing test prep or Study Island, I think we will cut back. Thank you for the question on test prep and Study Island.

  11. TE RES says:

    I’m not sure how I feel about this but I will say that State Senator Andrew E. Dinniman, D.Ed. has Offered:

    8 Reasons Why We Oppose the Keystone Graduation Exams.

    1.) It is fundamentally wrong for 3 standardized tests to determine a student’s high school graduation.

    2.) It is foolhardy to spend more than $65M a year on testing.

    3.) It is unfair to stamp failure on the backs of teachers, etc.

    4.)It is irresponsible

    5.) It is unscrupulous for the PA Depart. Of Ed. to continue to withhold data that is necessary for weighing the costs for local school districts.

    6.) It is preposterous that a test developed by the state with no input whatsoever from a course teacher or local district should be the main deciding factor on whether a student passes and graduates.

    7.) It is illogical.

    8.) It is clear that the PA Depart. of Ed. is not ready for prime time and neither are the Keystone Exams.

    The T/E school District Supports House Bill 168 Which Eliminates Keystone Exams as Graduation Requirements.

    There was a gathering on April 27th including parents, teachers and others from Radnor, TE and L.M. School Districts to discuss:

    Standardized: Lies, Money & Civil Rights—
    How Testing is Ruining Public Education
    Monday, April 27, 7-9PM
    The Saturday Club, 117 West Wayne Avenue, Wayne, PA

    Next time we’ll include UCF.

    All good information citizens should arm themselves with when making good decisions for their children.

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