Students in grades three, five, eight and 11 were being put to the test this week at thousands of schools across Pennsylvania. This marked the first time third graders were required to take the tests - known as the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSA. The exams, given over several days, have been mandatory in the other grades for more than a decade.
The tests carry such weight - housing values can rise if scores soar, and federal sanctions can befall schools if they fail to thrive - that school officials try hard to rally their students to the task.
Principals know that parents scrutinize school scores and become agitated if results dip.
Standing outside Valley Elementary, waiting for the doors to open, 9-year-old Tara Barras was asked whether she was ready for yesterday's round of testing.
Tara nodded yes, not once but twice. It was her mother, Barbara Barras, who wasn't so sure.
"She thinks she is, but the practice sheets I saw - maybe they're asking a little too much," Barras said.
Some math questions require students to explain in writing how they got their answers.
"That's a lot to ask of a third grader," Barras said. "She's not in middle school or high school. It should be enough to get the right answer."
Half an hour later, Tara was wide-eyed and smiling as she prepared to take the test in Jacqueline Blaswick's classroom.
Blaswick agreed with Tara's mother: The PSSAs require a lot of writing, but the children are well prepared for that challenge, the teacher said.
"I worry some about how stressful the tests can be on the children. We try to minimize that," Blaswick said.
The Philadelphia School District started PSSA testing last week. "Everything is going smoothly so far," said Joseph Jacovino, who oversees testing and accountability for the district.
The district will give another round of standardized tests, the Terra Nova exams, in grades two through 10 beginning later this month.
The 2002 federal law known as the No Child Left Behind Act requires that schools show annual gains on state assessments, with the daunting goal of getting all students to read and do math at proficient levels by 2012.
"There is pressure on everybody resulting from No Child Left Behind. As a district, you have to ensure a quality education for all kids, so you look at your programs and your curriculum, and you do staff development. . . . It's a mandate we all have to follow," said Marsha Hurda, assistant superintendent for instruction at the Spring-Ford School District in Montgomery County.
"I also think you can't measure what a district does by one test, and that's what No Child Left Behind attempts to do."
At several suburban high schools, including Pennsbury, Cheltenham and Upper Merion, 11th graders had extra quiet in the hallways; students in other grades not taking the tests arrived two hours after their regular start time.
In past years, districts discovered that motivating blas 11th graders was a big challenge, because the PSSA results had little direct bearing on students' academic futures. That has changed now that the state requires students to show proficiency on the PSSAs (or an equivalent assessment) for graduation. Students who score at basic or below face hurdles in their final year, including retaking the tests.
A new sense of seriousness can be discerned.
On Monday, Kathy Entrekin, principal at Upper Merion High, gave 11th graders orange juice, doughnuts, and a pep talk. "I talked about Upper Merion being a powerhouse in every competitive way, and that the PSSAs are a way for the juniors to show their stuff academically," Entrekin said.
Did the message take hold?
"Well, they applauded me as I was leaving," she said.
At Abington High School, principal Robert Burt held a town meeting with his 11th graders to impress upon them that the tests matter to the school as a whole and to each student as a graduation requirement.
Cheltenham principal Joseph Rodgers delayed the start of school for students who weren't taking the test. "Our juniors have a very complete understanding of their mission," Rodgers said. They know all about the PSSA - "what it is, how it works," he said.
At East High School in the West Chester Area School District, administrators rejected the idea of a delayed school opening (too great an expense for bus rental and too much disruption for other students) and instead put the 375-member junior class on buses to take the tests at Penn State's Great Valley campus, 11 miles from the high school. The $2,000 building rental and $1,755 in bus costs were paid for from state funds the school earned last year as a reward for good test scores.
"We wanted to create an environment like the one when students are taking the SATs on Saturdays - all the kids are taking the test, and that's all that's going on," East principal Richard Dunlap said.
That wasn't all. Treating its 11th-grade class like an athletic team before the big game, the school gave the students free breakfast and free lunch - Tuesday was hoagie day - using discretionary funds and food donated by local businesses. During the 10-minute test breaks, Parent Teacher Organization members handed out snacks of fruit, cheese crackers and water.
"We wanted them to feel that it was important. And it worked. The students are telling us that they loved it," Dunlap said.
Contact staff writer Connie Langland at 610-313-8134 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff writer Susan Snyder contributed to this story.