Students at odds over whether high school prepared them for life
The Tribune-Review examined school districts and charter schools in seven Western Pennsylvania counties. This is the first of a two-day report. Today: Former students talk about how well their high schools prepared them for college or a career.
At North Allegheny High School, Duke Lundahl took classes tailored for the 90 percent of district students who go on to college. That majority, however, did not include Lundahl.
When he graduated in 2013, he began a trade in metal fabrication and now works as a welder at Armin Iron Works in the North Side, putting in hours of labor before many of his former classmates wake up for an 8 a.m. college course.
“I really didn’t find too much of high school useful other than the basic math skills I use now,” he said.
Lundahl is one of many recent Western Pennsylvania public high school graduates who told the Tribune-Review that their high school fell short in preparing them for a job or college.
They’re not alone. A 2014 survey showed 47 percent of high school graduates nationally reported having “some” or “large” gaps in their preparation for life after high school, according to Achieve, a nonpartisan education reform organization.
Several local graduates cited their schools’ emphasis on preparing for state-administered standardized tests — notably, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSA, and Keystone Exam — as missing the target in preparing them for their future.
“Kids aren’t actually learning,” 2008 Aliquippa graduate Lauren Woods said. “They’re just learning a test.”
Skepticism of the tests is not confined to students.
“We shouldn’t be spending our time preparing for standardized tests,” Aliquippa Superintendent David Wytiaz said. “I don’t think there’s relevance in the preparation.”
To meet federal standards, all states administer tests similar to the PSSA.
Standardized tests help evaluate whether students are learning and retaining lessons that aid their success in careers or postsecondary education, Education Department spokeswoman Jessica Hickernell said. However, other measures of a student’s academic achievement must be taken into consideration, she added.
Woods said her district required students who did not score proficient in all subjects to take preparatory classes for the exams.
Woods, a 2012 graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh who is to receive a degree in software development from Community College of Allegheny County in December, said the number of preparatory classes limited the number of elective classes she could take.
A recent study by the American Federation of Teachers found that teachers lose 60 to 110 hours of instructional time every year because of standardized testing and associated tasks.
“It’s incredible. We don’t have enough time as it is,” Wytiaz said.
Rebecca Wakeley, a 2012 Shaler Area graduate, is among those who think their high school prepared them for college.
“I think Shaler did a phenomenal job,” said Wakeley, a student at Nyack College in New York City.
Erin Madigan, a 2013 graduate of North Allegheny and junior at Northwestern University, said the content and workload of Advanced Placement courses helped prepare her for college’s academic rigor.
“The transition wasn’t seamless, but I think that speaks more to the nature of college academics than the ability of a high school to prepare its students,” Madigan said.
Sara Mills, a 2012 graduate of Knoch Area High School and senior at Mercyhurst University, said students who put effort into high school classes get more out of them.
“I can’t help but think that much of my success came from an internal drive to want to succeed,” she said.
Matthew Zabierek was a Trib Total Media summer intern.