The “Nation’s Report Card” is released by The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) every year where students are tested at ages 9, 13, and 17. This past year, the testing results for readers at age 17 were abysmal, demonstrating only a 2% growth in reading scores over the past 41 years.
I was bemoaning this statistic to a friend who responded, “Well, they are just seventeen…”
Almost immediately, I heard the voice of Paul McCartney, the voice of my youth, respond in my brain, “…you know what I mean….”
Well, she was just seventeen,
You know what I mean,
And the way she looked was way beyond compare.
So how could I dance with another, (Ooh)
And I saw her standing there.
Seventeen is that age of great contradictions…you know what I mean? For example:
- Seventeen is the year before legal adulthood in the USA;
- Seventeen is the age at which one may watch, rent, or purchase R-rated movies without parental consent;
- Seventeen is the age at which one can enlist in the armed forces with parental permission;
- More 17-year-olds commit crimes than any other age group, according to recent studies by psychiatrists.
Nature also provides an example of frenetic activity that can happen in one seventeen year cycle. Consider that cicadas remain buried for seventeen years before coming out and breaking into their mating song. Coincidently there are quite a number of songs, mating or otherwise, that center their message on how it feels to be seventeen.
There is the raw sexuality in Paradise By the Dashboard Light by Meat Loaf:
Though it’s cold and lonely in the deep dark night
I can see paradise by the dashboard light
Ain’t no doubt about it we were doubly blessed
‘Cause we were barely seventeen
And we were barely dressed
Similarly, the Cars exhort the passions of seventeen in their song Let’s Go:
she’s winding them down
on her clock machine
and she won’t give up
’cause she’s seventeen
she’s a frozen fire
she’s my one desire
Glam rock band Winger also offers a robust cicada-like mating call for their song Seventeen:
I’m only seventeen
But I”ll show you love like you’ve never seen
She’s only seventeen
Daddy says she’s too young
There are songs that address the restlessness of seventeen such as Edge of Seventeen by Stevie Nicks:
He was no more than a baby then
Well, he seemed broken hearted, something within him
But the moment that I first laid eyes on him all alone
On the edge of seventeen
While Rod Stewart adds a cautionary tale of runaway seventeen-year-olds to his song Young Turks:
Billy left his home with a dollar in his pocket and a head full of dreams.
He said somehow, some way, it’s gotta get better than this.
Patti packed her bags, left a note for her momma, she was just seventeen,
There were tears in her eyes when she kissed her little sister goodbye.
Emotional pain is explored in Janis Ian’s heartbreaking At Seventeen
I leaned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired
In contrast, however, adults are nostalgic for the age in Frank Sinatra’s It Was a Very Good Year:
When I was seventeen
It was a very good year
It was a very good year
for small town girls
And soft summer nights
We’d hide from the lights
On the village green
When I was seventeen
Seventeen is an age of complications. Don’t even get me started on Rogers and Hammerstein’s I am Sixteen Going on Seventeen from The Sound of Music; poor Lisel has Nazi problems in her secret romance!
Each song, (and yes, I know there are many others) explores the multitude of contradictions in being seventeen. Collectively, the lyrics show how seventeen is a seething ferment of frustration, experimenting, wishing, waiting, and wanting; a potent potion for those tipping into adulthood.
And this is the targeted population for nationwide testing?
Therefore, when the annual sample of seventeen year olds is selected to take the NAEP test in order to diagnosis the reading level of the nation’s seventeen year olds, I wonder, how invested are they in this task? These are the students who have been state standardized tested at every grade level, they have been PSAT, SAT or ACT tested, and maybe Advanced Placement tested. What does this extra test, with no impact on their GPA, mean to them?
I wonder if they simply fill out the letters A-B-B-A on the multiple choice just to have test done? Which reminds me, ABBA also has a seventeen themed song, Dancing Queen:
You are the Dancing Queen, young and sweet, only seventeen
Dancing Queen, feel the beat from the tambourine
You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life
See that girl, watch that scene, digging the Dancing Queen
So what did the Beatles mean when they sang, Well, she was just seventeen, you know what I mean?
On the compilation album Anthology, Paul admits that he and John were also stumped in trying to define the complexity of being seventeen in the lyrics to I Saw Her Standing There:
We were learning our skill. John would like some of my lines and not others. He liked most of what I did, but there would sometimes be a cringe line, such as, ‘She was just seventeen, she’d never been a beauty queen.’ John thought, ‘Beauty queen? Ugh.’ We were thinking of Butlins so we asked ourselves, what should it be? We came up with, ‘You know what I mean.’ Which was good, because you don’t know what I mean.
Maybe we should take this advice from Paul and John and all the other recording artists. Maybe the only thing we are testing for the past 41 years is how seventeen year olds test the same in every generation. Maybe just being seventeen means confronting more immediate problems, and these problems do not include taking a NAEP test.