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Guest Commentary: “It Was Just A Lot of Stress”

Masterman 8th graders sat last week for the School District's new essay requirement for Philly’s top academic high schools. Then the system crashed. Why, one student wonders, can’t they get it right?

Guest Commentary: “It Was Just A Lot of Stress”

Masterman 8th graders sat last week for the School District's new essay requirement for Philly’s top academic high schools. Then the system crashed. Why, one student wonders, can’t they get it right?

[Ed. note: This fall, the School District announced a change to the way eighth-grade students apply for special admission high schools. In addition to the controversial new admissions policy designed to address equity issues, it was also announced late in the fall that there would be a new essay requirement for the application into four popular schools. (Central High School, George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, Julia R. Masterman High School, and the Academy at Palumbo would all join Parkway Center City Middle College in requiring essays from applicants.

Students interested in applying to the lottery process for each school are required to write an essay in response to a computerized prompt; their scores determine their eligibility to take part in a lottery for one of these special-admission high schools. But when 185 students at Masterman logged on last Wednesday to write their essays, glitches in the system forced administrators to cancel it mid-way through. They are giving it a second shot today. But what, we wondered, did this latest bit of confusion mean for students already facing a fraught process in the midst of a tough year?

Here, a Masterman 8th grader (daughter of Executive Editor Roxanne Patel Shepelavy) weighs in on her experience.]

The essay is new this year. High school applications used to just be based mostly on grades, but this year it’s more of a lottery system, along with an essay that’s graded on a computer. You have 90 minutes to log in, get a prompt, write your essay on the computer, revise it, and then submit it by the end of that period.

The prompts could be anything. One practice prompt we got was “What is the definition of success?” A prompt could also be, “If you could start an extracurricular activity at your school, what would it be?” Or “What’s a lesson you’ve learned in life?” They range from super deep to sort of simple. So you write it, and then you get your score right there, at the end of the test. The computer grades it. To get into three schools, you need a 17 out of 30, and to get into Masterman and Central—which is where I want to go—you need a minimum of 22 out of 30.

At the beginning of school, we were under the impression that the high school application process was going to be the same. We had no warning; it wasn’t until the applications were released. And then they said there’s also a computer-graded essay, but nobody knew when. We didn’t find out until November 21, when we were turning in our applications. They told us it would be sometime before winter break, but that was sort of annoying because if you didn’t get the right score on your essay, then you’re automatically not going to get into the schools you already filled out applications for, which means you wasted time on those schools’ applications, and maybe could have focused more time on other schools.

It’s so brand new, I think they don’t know what they’re doing. So everyone is panicking and stressed out by it.

We did do some practice for the essays. Last week, when everyone still thought the test was going to happen on Wednesday, our teachers gave us time to write an essay with a prompt, and work on revisions, and to get pointers and tips. When we first started doing practice tests, I was very, very stressed. My friend’s English teacher had also given them a website with an online grading system, so I spent a lot of time practicing on that, and felt a little better. I also just re-read the tips my teacher gave me over and over again. By Tuesday, I was feeling more confident, though going to sleep was difficult because I got the nerves again.

Wednesday morning, the day of the test, we all sat down, closed all the tabs and windows in the computer. The teacher handed out names and passwords for the website, and gave directions about what was going to happen. You get some scrap paper before you start the essay, so I immediately wrote down all the tips I could remember so that I could look at them as I wrote. Everyone was stressed but ready to do it.

So we go on, and the first thing you noticed was that it was taking forever to load. You could click for your prompt, but mine took five minutes to show up. It’s timed. That’s actual time you lose. Some people were clicking and immediately getting their prompts and starting; some people’s took 15 minutes to load. Some people clicked it and there were no prompts at all. It said “Not available.” A couple people had server errors, where there was a chance you’d type and your work wouldn’t be saved.

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When my prompt finally loaded, I had four different choices, and three of them were “choose what you want to write”—I could write an argumentative essay, informative, narrative, or I could write what makes a good school. My teacher didn’t know anything about having choices, so she said to hang on and wait until she could check and get an answer about that. At this point everyone was stressing.

The assistant principal came in and told us they’d sort everything out. I had just ended up starting to write on my own prompt—I picked my own topic—because I was like, “Well, I guess I’m not going to wait.” I didn’t want to lose time. It was super stressful. I kept thinking if I don’t get a 22, I can’t go to the school I want to go to, I don’t even have a chance. Not even accepted into that lottery.

The assistant principal said we could have more time, because some people still couldn’t start; it had already been like 30 minutes. And then she eventually told us that it was canceled, and we’d reschedule. But some people had been writing all that time; some people had their first draft of their essay, and now none of that work mattered. It was pretty infuriating.

At the beginning of the test, we had all had to put our phones and watches in the front of the classroom. So afterwards, we walked up and got them, and called our parents. Some people started to cry. It was just a lot of stress.

I kept thinking if I don’t get a 22, I can’t go to the school I want to go to, I don’t even have a chance. Not even accepted into that lottery.

My teacher and my assistant principal didn’t know any information about it, either, because it had just happened and it was such a brand new thing. We didn’t find out until the next day that the retake would be in a week [today]. So it was like 24 hours of not knowing.

People were really, really mad. They were upset; they were mad at the School District. My friends and I were very annoyed because we went to all this trouble and got stressed and anxious and scrambled just for this to fail. And we were supposed to already know our scores by now. It was supposed to be over. And it’s not yet. This Wednesday, we’re going through the same thing again, but now angrier and more doubtful that it’s going to work. Where we go to high school relies on the results of this essay; it’s very, very stressful.

It’s a lot of pressure on an essay and us, and it’s happening in a year that’s already crazy because Covid is still happening, and there’s already so much stress and weirdness. And then they change the system, and then it doesn’t work. In a way, I feel sort of less prepared for this essay now, sort of less confident now that I have a rough idea of what it will be, and definitely nervous that there will be glitches that could mess up my score.

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I think one possibility is that they didn’t plan for the fact that tons and tons of kids are going to be taking this test. There are 200 kids in my grade. [Most sat for the essay.] I think they didn’t account for the fact that everyone was on the same website at once, and it would lag. It’s so brand new, I think they don’t know what they’re doing. So everyone is panicking and stressed out by it. Nobody gives us a clear answer on how things work until the day before or the day of.

High school applications aside, I would say things are going pretty smoothly now, better than they were at the beginning of the year. A lot of it feels almost normal. They sprung this on us, which isn’t ideal. But at this point, we’re used to the fact that it’s not going to be what we want to happen, that it won’t be easier for us to get into high school. After the essay test, there will be nothing we can do but wait until mid-to-late January or early February to figure out what’s going to happen.

The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.


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Header photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

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