Testing 1. 2. 3.

I live in Glen Mills, Penn. – a community that can easily be defined as your archetypical “suburban utopia.” White picket fences line the clean-cut lawns. We are a proud, white-collar community of soccer moms and corporate dads. Our crime rate is low, and our hopes are high. Our school system and the children within that system are considered the central priority, both socially and politically. In the recent past, our high school has twice been recognized as a Pennsylvania School of Distinction, an honor bestowed upon only 18 schools within the state. Garnet Valley High School holds a boastful record when it comes to its student-retention statistics, and the graduation list from this year’s class includes such destinations as NYU, Cornell, Duke, and Tufts.

Unfortunately, Garnet Valley’s academic merit is not enough to convince the state that we, as an institution, are up to par. As a result of the No Child Left Behind Act, students across Pennsylvania are required to take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or the PSSA, a standardized test that supposedly measures a student’s academic ability and comprehension level in three subject areas. The test is comprised of sections devoted to writing, reading, and mathematics, and students are rated on performance levels of “advanced proficiency,” “proficiency,” “basic” and “below basic.” Students are tested in the fifth, eighth, and eleventh grades, and by the time he/she has entered their junior year at Garnet Valley, the administration begins to ceaselessly stress the importance of the PSSA. They want us to know that they mean business, and for a good reason. Though the repercussions for “failing” the PSSA vary depending on a student’s age, an eleventh-grader who does not meet proficiency on one or more section of the test runs the risk of not graduating from high school.

To think that failure of the test could keep us from graduating is a terrifying prospect indeed, yet this seemingly cruel and unusual punishment is not imposed merely as a scare tactic for the “slackers” and insubordinate “punks.” To my utter disbelief, 96 out of the 272 students in my class are now ineligible to graduate until proving themselves "intellectually worthy" of a diploma. I am one of these students. Now correct me if I’m wrong (and I might be, considering my “basic” mathematical knowledge), but a 35 percent failure rate does not strike me as a very promising statistic. And apparently, these numbers are even better than last year’s.

A student who does not meet proficiency in one or more subject of the PSSA is presented with a few options. Of course, the list of choices reads more like the Miranda rights than a list of veritable alternatives. Although students are not required to retake the test, exceptionally motivated people are granted the option to do so. Students who are not proficient must also build a portfolio of "proficient" work. As a student, I have upheld a strong academic record throughout my high school career. In fact, I was recently inducted into the National Honor Society, which requires that a student maintains a cumulative 3.5 un-weighted GPA, demonstrates good character, participates in community service, and upholds high personal standards. Clearly, math is not my strong point, but I have always worked hard and I've managed to earn decent grades. Now I feel like all my hard work has suddenly been rendered meaningless. It is as if the school is saying, “Yes, we see on your transcript that you have done well in all of your math classes, but this one test tells us otherwise.” This just doesn’t seem right.

I wanted to protest, but first, interviewed the administration about their true feelings about the test. Every administrator who I spoke with admitted, sheepishly, that, yes, the test has many flaws. Many expressed that they do not believe the PSSA is a reliable gauge of a student’s knowledge, and an English teacher commented on the fact that one of the strongest students in her honors English course did not meet proficiency on the writing section of the test. A number of teachers shared the concern and frustration about being forced to “teach to the test.” And it's true. Many of them have altered class curriculum and sacrificed certain key elements in their courses in an effort to teach their students how to cheat the system. One teacher I spoke with made a good point in reference to the difficulty level of the PSSA. Every year, when the state realizes that they have made the test too hard, they will lower the bar slightly. This might work for awhile, but the bar can only be lowered so far. Before long, the material on the PSSA could be so easy that the test itself will be of no educational value. And besides, that's not the central problem.

The PSSA was supposed to be a positive step forward for schools across Pennsylvania, and yet can one truly standardize such a thing as a student’s intellectual ability? Not only is it impossible to compare every student in one school using a single set of standards, but it's impossible to compare every school across Pennsylvania using these standards. I am told that the state is doing this with my “best interests” in mind, yet I cannot help but wonder if by “No Child Left Behind” they did not actually mean “No Child Left Optimistic,” “Quite A Few Children Left Hurt,” and “A Whole Lot of Children Left Behind.” I can only hope that someday our government will make true on their promise. But for the time being, I (along with at least 96 others) am feeling left behind.

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