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Pass Or Fail

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The middle-aged man standing in a corner grips his white coffee cup and glances every so often at his watch as he paints a word picture of a warm and soothing beach. He arches his eyebrows. In hushed phrases, he calmly sketches the scene for the nine boys and five girls sitting at tables in a high school library with their heads down--like maybe they're off dreaming or maybe waiting for a guillotine to fall.

Dustin Sutton, in a blue T-shirt and jeans and with his round glasses pushed toward the middle of the table, could be fancying the beach. He could be thinking about breathing deeply, which the soft-spoken relaxation coach is now encouraging. Or he might still be quietly trying to figure out how he got into this bind.

It was, after all, exactly one week ago, the first Monday in May, when he walked into West Mesquite High School confident of his future and, before the first-period bell rang, had learned the news. Whether he graduated from high school later this month would be determined solely by the last-chance 60-question standardized math test that awaits as soon as he opens his eyes.

This is how Texas guarantees that its high school diplomas are worth something. Every high school student must either pass a reading, writing, and math test--or receive an exemption because of a learning disability--or not graduate. The state is confident about the system. The numbers look good. Among this year's junior class, 67 percent had already passed the exit test by Christmas, up from 54 percent for last year's juniors and 48 percent by the class the year before.

Two years ago, when the state school board was tempted to put off raising the passing standard on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills--the test's official name--Gov. Ann W. Richards stood up for the higher TAAS standards. She argued that moving the passing mark from 60 percent to 70 percent and standing behind the 10th-grade-proficiency test would force school districts to do a better job.

Policymakers agree that holding students and schools to such standards sends the message that improvement is necessary. Then, state officials say, it's up to school districts, parents, and children to strive to meet those expectations.

But in such a situation, the leverage becomes teenagers across the state--students like 18-year-old Dustin Sutton, who aspires to join the Marines and become a drill instructor, and his classmates now huddled around these library tables.

They are the human toll that every Texas school must take responsibility for. And it is their struggle and the frustration of their families that state officials are coldly counting on to force schools to change.

But often the individual struggle and frustration become just that--the makings of anger and resentment--instead of being converted into any kind of fuel for improvement.

And I Cried Like A Baby

The first Monday in May, Deborah Mayfield came to school feeling sick. She knew why.

"My stomach begins to cramp, even though I've probably had the feeling for about two weeks,'' she explained that day. "It's still very difficult. Last year was my first year of doing this, and I cried like a baby right along with the kids.''

Mayfield and two other counselors sit in square offices behind painted cinder-block walls. College catalogues line their bookshelves. Testing materials and memos pile up on their file cabinets and chairs. Hall passes, reminders, and snapshots of kids at the prom clutter their desktops. Signs dividing students alphabetically by last name hang above their doorways.

For most of the morning, the counselors call in seniors who have yet to master the state test to tell them how they did on the most recent try. Some passed. But others, like Dustin, learned that after their fourth try, they failed again. On the week of the annual Senior Breakfast, when thoughts are obviously turning to leaving school, they are left only to think that they may never get out.

They have one more chance--one more week until they sit down again and fill in answer-form bubbles, with high school commencement, childhood's grand finale, on the line.

"I dread this day as if it were my own son,'' says Mayfield, partway through the morning's work. "We know their goals and aspirations. We know that they are taking it very seriously. That diploma means a whole lot.''

All of the counselors have stocked up on tissues, one going the extra step to get paper towels from a bathroom for fear that one-ply won't do.

"They are mad at everybody,'' explains Anna Smith, the school's lead counselor, when she had finished delivering the test news to her batch of seniors. "They are mad at the school and the teachers, and then we deal with the parents and ask ourselves, 'What can we do?'''

"It's just so sad,'' Smith says.

Counselor Beth Fox holds up a list of students' names typed on several sheets of paper. At the bottom of the last page are lines highlighted in pink, green, and yellow. These are the students whose graduation is in jeopardy because of attendance problems, a lack of class credits, or the probability that they will fail a class their last semester.

"You can understand with those--you can see it,'' she says, implying that for most of the students who still have not satisfied the state's graduation-exam requirement, the answers are not so apparent.

Dustin was called into Beth Fox's office first thing this morning. "His eyes were reading my face when he walked through the door,'' she recalls. "It was real hard, watching his face fall.''

After talking with Dustin, she called in his twin sister, who passed the exit test this spring. In the confines of Fox's office, the brother and sister cried and hugged. Jennifer called their father at work. Dustin called his Marine recruiter.

"This is putting his whole life on hold, and it hasn't done anyone any good,'' Fox says, finding in a stack of pictures the one of Jennifer in a sequined gown and Dustin in a tuxedo standing together at the prom, smiling.

"He didn't show it, but I could tell he was very angry,'' she says, a bit angry herself. "This is a kid with a plan that is realistic.''

"He said, 'I can't believe 12 years of school comes down to one test,''' she remembers.

As Monday morning draws to a close, graduation is on hold for Dustin and 10 other students at West Mesquite High School.

I'll Work My Rear Off

By that afternoon, Dustin is long gone. He checked himself out of school and went to his grandparents' house, where he spent the rest of the day fuming. Had he spent much more time at school, he explains later, he would have exploded.

Test or no test, these are days of passage for Dustin, a freckled and strong son of Texas who likes country music and rodeo. After 18 years in a close-knit family, he eagerly awaits launching out on his own for boot camp and a military career that he feels sure will satisfy his sense of order, respect, and hard work.

"I want to be a Marine, to defend my country and the lives of my people,'' he says by way of describing himself. "I'm very hard core when it comes to doing things right and doing it perfect. I'll keep fighting until I get a yes. I'll work my rear off.''

Like other teenagers, Dustin is busy envisioning his life as an adult. On a walk outside the school he talks about his girlfriend and learning that love is built out of caring and trust and affection--soft emotions he describes as if he were the first to discover them. He's struggling to piece it all together with the impulses that prove his undoing on paper-and-pencil tests: the way he jumps to conclusions, the way he finds it difficult to linger within questions and discern precisely what they are asking.

It is not hard to understand his fascination with bull riding, where the cowboy nestles atop a mad beast and, once it is let loose, basically holds tight for dear life. "It's all in the hands and knees,'' Dustin says with a smile. "You just hang on.''

When he was younger, friends say people called Dustin a punk because of his flashes of impatient energy and aggression. Only lately has he shown a more deliberative side.

"The four years of high school have been the best four years of my life,'' Dustin says. "I have had a blast, and I've made A's and B's for once.''

One teacher calls him a talker--always blurting out whatever he's thinking and eager to make a joke. This week, the attempts at humor are not as noticeable. The graduation test is about all he can manage to think about.

"Over one test,'' Dustin says angrily. "My whole life stops for that one test. When Mrs. Fox told me I hadn't passed, all I could see was my sister walking across the stage and me not there,'' he remembers. "I'm supposed to walk in front of her.''

"This makes your faith run weak, and out of all of this I've got to find a positive side,'' Dustin says, acknowledging that he's having trouble making sense of his dilemma. "I prayed Monday night. I got down on my knees and said, 'Lord, I need your help.'''

"Deep down inside, I feel there's something good that comes out of this,'' he says. "Something miraculous.''

What's My Next Move?

Before they settled in Mesquite a few years ago, Don Sutton, Dustin's father, was a preacher. In contrast to his youngest son, the mild-mannered single parent speaks in serious, measured phrases. In the spacious living room of the Suttons' modest brick home in a neighborhood full of similar ranch houses, only a table lamp burns as he rests in a recliner in his stocking feet. He can't get his mind off Dustin.

"For your child,'' he says, "if you had to, you'd nearly jump off a building.''

By all accounts, these have been tough years for the family--a divorce, a new home, and cutting corners to make ends meet as Sutton has taken a new job as a technical writer for a nearby computer company.

Throughout their school years, Dustin and Jennifer say, their father has been intensely interested in their progress, expecting good grades and behavior and usually getting it.

"My dad demanded that I pass,'' Dustin says. "He's demanded that all my life.''

On Wednesday night, Don Sutton acknowledges that it's been hard to concentrate on much of anything since Jennifer called in tears Monday morning. "I could tell when she called that he went from a high that morning when he was getting ready for school to a zero,'' says Sutton, who wondered for the rest of the day what he would be dealing with when he got home.

"It is difficult these past few days to face the task of going to work and coming home and knowing that this is not going to go away,'' he says. "At work, I find myself dwelling on it, and then it rolls over and begins to affect me.''

"I've drunk more coffee this week on my job and been getting up from my computer because, as I'm writing, I almost start putting my problems on the screen. All I want to focus on is what I can do to help him.''

Don Sutton is not the only parent feeling the pressure of this anxiety-filled week. Across town, Linda Monroy's attempts to help her daughter have quickly backfired. Since Monday she has been pushing Carey, her youngest, to study and try one last time to pass the graduation test. If that chance is lost, she will prod her daughter no more.

"This is tearing us apart,'' she says, fighting back tears.

Between the front door and the living room of the Monroys' house in Mesquite is a short hallway. One wall is covered with family pictures--children, grandchildren, and grown-ups. The biggest picture on the wall is a tinted photograph of Linda Monroy, young and grinning, in her maroon graduation gown. The faded tassel from years ago dangles from one corner of the frame.

On the opposite wall are large color portraits. First Leslie, the Monroy's oldest daughter, in her West Mesquite High cap and gown holding a small rolled-up parchment. Next to it hangs a striking picture of Leslie in her wedding gown. In the middle of the wall is an identical graduation portrait of Stacy, the middle child. A blank space obviously waits for Carey's picture, which mother and daughter will drive to a local photo studio to have taken this week.

"My husband and I, we're not educated people,'' Monroy explains. "We are high school graduates and have gone to adult education, but we didn't pursue college.''

She has picked up sample copies of the test and is befuddled herself by many of the questions. "I can't help her, my husband can't help her, and she's got a bad attitude and doesn't want to talk about it. She has all her credit hours, and she's a B student, but come graduation day, she's not going to graduate.''

Like Dustin, Carey is attending extra tutorial sessions at West Mesquite High and following the school's agenda for test preparation. But Monroy sees her daughter going through the same coaching and preparation that has left her short of a passing grade too many times before.

"I don't know what's going to happen,'' she says. "I've done everything that I can, and I'm just like lost, thinking 'What's my next move?'''

Don Sutton has been thinking back to elementary school--days when he recalls Dustin as a lazy student who daydreamed of baseball and soccer and other outdoor activities.

"As a parent, I realize their goals in life are going to be determined from the values and time I've taken to instill at home,'' he says. "So something like this makes you wonder if you failed.''

Actually, he believes the blame lies in other places, too. Even so, Sutton cannot point solely at teachers or school officials or the test itself.

"You've sent them to school and been made to believe they've gotten all the tools and equipment they need to accomplish the school's goals,'' he says. "But Dustin has not touched the honors classes. He never had a class of geometry. Pre-algebra was all.''

Sutton says this week will pit Dustin's resolve against the mediocre education that makes this test so hard. He is not ready to give up.

"The strongest part about Dustin is his comeback.''

These Are The Days

At a local steakhouse and country-music dance hall, a crowd of students is checking out Curtis, who has left his classmates at the long table on all-you-can-eat sirloin night to make his way across the dance floor. After catching the eye of a woman from a group of senior citizens, the two commence dancing hand in hand.

One boy from the West Mesquite High group--out celebrating the end of the school year--picks up his camera and snaps a picture of the improbable couple as the table erupts in laughter.

Earlier that day, at the annual Senior Breakfast, some members of the graduating class began to cry and others smirked when a teacher's voice croaked a bit as a faculty guitar trio began serenading the teenagers gathered in the cafeteria.

"These are the days you'll remember,'' the teacher sings to strumming guitars, "Never before and never since, I promise, will the whole world be as warm as this. And as you feel it, you'll know it's true that you are blessed and lucky.''

Later in the program, long after the muffins and Danish and orange juice are gone, the class rises and faces a side wall where they sing the alma mater to a painted cowboy.

"Home of Wrangler honor and pride,'' they sing more or less in unison. "In our hearts you will abide.''

Friends hug and pose for pictures. A woman gets on the microphone and asks that the bluebonnet centerpieces be left on the table. A strapping boy in a dress shirt with one of the clay pots already in his arms shrugs and puts the arrangement back down, laughing. He makes off with an orange cardboard cutout of an owl in a graduation cap. Across its breast it says, "You Made It!''

Amid all the giddiness stands Rhodeshia Johnson, 18, tall and pretty, the class valedictorian, dressed smartly for such an occasion--one in a series that will include a Senior Bash, Baccalaureate, and then Graduation.

"This is a time where you really reflect on what you've done here,'' she explains, "the friends you've made and the teachers you've had.''

By the fall, she plans to be enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, working toward a degree in electrical engineering. Asked about the graduation test, she recalls taking it early in her junior year.

"I didn't think much of it,'' she says. "It seemed like an easy test.'' She passed it with flying colors.

"There are still some people taking it,'' she adds. "They are coming down to the last day or two.''

Mabel Santos easily remembers such senior-year revelry, one year after she finished high school. She is sitting at a table near the back of a local McDonald's. One of six children, she was expected to be the third to graduate from high school.

"I thought I had passed because the test seemed easy,'' she says of the last test given before graduation last year. "I had only gotten 15 invitations just in case, and everyone in my family and church and my friends were looking forward to it. But when I told them, they all said, 'No. No way.' They just couldn't believe it.''

Mabel failed the test by three questions.

"It was like nothing,'' she says flatly. "Like I hadn't gone to school at all.'' She skipped classes on the day everyone rehearsed for commencement because she couldn't stand being there. Last summer, she enrolled in a course aimed at getting a General Educational Development certificate so she could get into college.

She took the exit exam again during the summer, and again missed by three questions.

Mabel finds it hard to fault herself as a student.

"I didn't study until midnight, but I did pretty well,'' she says. "I loved English, and I did perfect in English, but I just got B's and C's in algebra. People say I'm not, but I think I'm a slow learner in math. Teachers have to show me and tell me.''

Characteristic of her shyness, Mabel found it hard to ask when she had a question in class. "A lot of times you feel stupid if you ask a question that somebody already knows,'' she says.

After more tutoring, she put aside the G.E.D. course and decided to try the exit exam once more this spring. On Tuesday, Deborah Mayfield, her old counselor at West Mesquite High, called with good news. She passed and could drive by anytime and pick up her diploma.

"It bothers me,'' she says. "People talk about graduation, but I don't know what it's like to walk across that stage.''

It Gets Real Intense

As he stares into the gray computer screen at a math problem, Dustin is somewhere between the agony and the ecstasy that surround his final days of school. He sits at a table with two computers. One boy is behind him. Two girls sit at the table in front of him. Three other seniors are working on computers nearby. Next door, the rest of the class--safely bound for graduation--sits in a vacant home-economics room watching the movie "Glory'' on television.

They all started out together as members of the Math of Money class, a remedial TAAS-preparation course that includes all of the seniors who haven't passed the math test by the end of their junior year. There is a similar remedial class for students who have yet to pass the writing and reading sections of the test. For this last week, Dustin will return to this classroom during one other class period to do more computer math drills. All day Thursday will be devoted to math tutoring.

Doug Barber, a young and patient teacher who also coaches running backs and the secondary for the football team, moves quickly and quietly around the room. He started with 74 seniors and is now down to nine. He feels the deadline looming as much as any of his students, even though he has nothing at stake. He's already batting .878.

"It gets real intense,'' he says in almost a whisper on the opposite side of the room from where Dustin and his classmates are working. "The pressure is just so much. This time they know it's do or die.''

Dustin's hand goes up, and he mouths the words, "Coach Barber.'' They talk, and Barber reminds Dustin that distance equals rate times time. Dustin works through the problem.

Barber returns to express a problem he has yet to solve--namely, why some of his weaker students are now watching a movie while others are still in this room. "A lot of them are good students,'' he says looking away. "Their parents call, and they try hard. There are a few that have real weak math skills, but most of them who still have a hard time passing are poor test-takers.''

"There's not anything on there that is tough math,'' he explains. "The hard part is whether you can pull the right information out of the problem.''

A high school science teacher who has looked at the TAAS tests says that most teachers are content to have students transcribe or memorize formulas and rules and then apply them with numbers. But the state's test asks students to go a step further and discern the pertinent information from questions, then begin combining the equation and the formula.

In many cases, that first step is a weak link in learning, some teachers at West Mesquite High say. It is also true that rather than pushing students toward more advanced classes, the test has created a new layer of remedial courses with more on the way. Next year, the TAAS exit exam will include social-studies and science sections. Counselors and teachers alike expect even worse problems and more remedial courses.

In fact, many educators say the test seems to be at odds with other reform initiatives across the state.

At West Mesquite High School, state law has produced a school-based-decisionmaking council meant to boost the professionalism and power of teachers to increase local accountability. But those council members are completely handcuffed when it comes to deciding which students deserve a high school diploma. A disinterested test makes that decision over a teaching staff that is intimately familiar with student effort, ambition, and potential.

What's more, as school districts embrace the notion that retention in early grades sends a bad message to children that almost guarantees later failure, teachers at West Mesquite High describe how students on the cusp of entering adulthood are basically shattered at the last possible step--not only held back, but judged personally by a state test. Not everyone, West Mesquite High officials point out, rebounds like Mabel Santos. Not everyone sticks around to get hammered again and again like Dustin Sutton.

"The problem is that the test is above all,'' Don Sutton says. "Where the system has not taken responsibility is in working with a student who is average and passing but is not getting enough classroom time to learn basic algebra and geometry.''

Teachers at West Mesquite High swallow hard before saying that these students deserve to miss graduation.

"We're all guilty,'' says Barber, who had five students from his remedial-math class not pass in time for graduation last year.

"I realize that before this, people were slipping through the cracks,'' the coach continues. "Kids were going to college who couldn't read, but now we've fallen into teaching a test.''

Across the room, Dustin is getting frustrated after the computer lets him know that he's selected a wrong answer. His eyes glance toward Barber, and he looks quickly back at the screen.

"I'm getting careless,'' he says quietly.

I Can't Help Him Now

Jennifer Sutton has watched her brother grow up. He has walked into her room in the middle of the night to talk to her about his troubles. They're not inseparable, but they have gone through most everything together. Even though she's been sure of graduation for a couple of months after having some TAAS trouble of her own, she is angry about the price that Dustin may have to pay for somebody's peace of mind that a test is weeding out underachievers.

"This test is hard,'' she says. "And it's pointless.''

"There are a lot of people who have worked the whole four years of high school to be what they want to be,'' she says. "And this test makes you feel dumb and like a failure--like you don't know what you're doing.''

Schoolwork and discipline have come easier to Jennifer than to Dustin, both by nature and by practice. For the past four years, she has lived in a house with her father and three brothers on a tight budget. Often, she was the one looking out for what was ready for dinner. She prides herself on the fact that there has always been something there, even if there were times when it was just a plain baked potato.

All along, she has been Dustin's helper. Now, with the test not much more than hours away, she recalls times when he would have math questions and just keep asking and asking. Out of frustration, she would eventually give him the answer. She has seen teachers do the same.

"When kids are just sitting there, teachers sometimes just push them aside and work with the ones who are paying attention,'' Jennifer says. "But sister has always been there, I've sat there and helped him and helped him, but I can't help him now.''

She cried, too, through second period on Monday, enough that some of her friends were crying along with her. The anxiety, she says, will keep building until Dustin finds out his results. The state expects to notify schools about the final results a few days before West Mesquite High has scheduled its graduation ceremonies at the Reunion Arena in downtown Dallas.

"I've seen some kids give up,'' Dustin says. "And earlier, all I saw was my sister walking across the stage and me not there. But I think now I have this whole senior class pulling for me. And if I pass this test, the whole school is going to know it.''

"Out of all this,'' Dustin says, "I can still laugh and be happy and have fun. Everything is going to turn out great.''

As the new week arrives, the halls of West Mesquite High School are roaring with noise. Crowds of boys and girls walk in every direction waiting for the first bell of the day.

The din is audible within the counselors' offices, which open on one side to a main hallway. On the other side of the offices, which open onto the library, the scene is still and silent as, one by one, students arrive.

Counselors Beth Fox and Deborah Mayfield walk around with test materials gathered up in their arms. Anna Smith comes in and out, and after looking at the students who have staked out tables in the library, she walks through Mayfield's office.

"Whooo,'' Smith sighs as she heads for the outside halls. "Talk about tension.''

The students gather at tables. Dustin walks from a table near the nonfiction section to the area where students are congregating. He takes his glasses off as the counselors announce they are going to take a few minutes for a relaxation drill.

Within minutes, the man in glasses and black pants and a dark striped shirt is pacing with his coffee cup and conjuring a beach scene.

"Picture yourself taking this terrible, terrible test,'' he says after the boys and girls have put their heads down and begun breathing deeply.

"And realize you are in control,'' he says. "You have the skills and the knowledge and the ability to do your very best.''

"You are ready for what is going to happen today,'' he says, shortly before asking the students to open their eyes as he counts backward starting from 20--like a rocket is about ready to take off or maybe a bomb is going to explode.

One week before commencement ceremonies, Dustin Sutton learned that he failed the 60-question TAAS test once more. Carey Monroy learned that she, too, had not passed the test.

Two days before graduation, Dustin was tested by school officials and judged to have a learning disability, which exempted him from the state test. Carey Monroy was also exempted for the same reason.

On Saturday night, May 28, 200 seniors graduated from West Mesquite High School. One student at the school did not graduate because of his exit-test scores; six students in the Mesquite Independent School District did not graduate because of the test. Across Texas, 9,069 seniors failed at least one part of the exam.

West Mesquite High School administrators also invited Mabel Santos to participate in commencement--one year late. She gladly accepted.

A Test Of Faith

A decade ago, attention-grabbing headlines about how football teams and drill squads came before academics in Texas high schools plagued district officials across the state.

To combat the image problem, Gov. Mark White appointed scrappy businessman Ross Perot to develop a school-reform plan that would put an end to the damning news stories--including the ones about Texas high school and college graduates who said they couldn't read or decipher a bank statement.

In 1984, Perot came out with a slate of tough, no-nonsense reforms led by the state's well-known "no pass, no play'' law. The reform package also introduced the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, a graduation test that would weed out students who had dawdled through the state's lackluster schools without learning much.

Texas was not the only state with such concerns. Twenty states now have exit exams for their high school students. In Louisiana this year, more than 1,500 students were denied diplomas after 12 years of public schooling. In Ohio, where the U.S. Education Department is reviewing the graduation exam, 3,200 seniors were expected not to graduate because of low test scores.

But in many states like Texas, the diploma-screening exam has become more than a mere insurance policy against illiteracy. Policymakers have grafted the test onto a host of new reforms aimed at raising standards and insuring accountability.

Beginning this year, for example, Texas students will receive an individual learning index that shows how they are faring on criterion-reference standardized tests--essentially illustrating what percentage of the state's academic expectations they are meeting. What's more, schools across the state are now being accredited based largely on the standardized-test scores of children beginning in 3rd grade.

Policymakers say the new standards--including the exit test and more rigorous course requirements--set out to place a higher premium on learning and improvement and, in turn, force the state's schools to boost its expectations.

"This is not intended to lay blame on students, not solely,'' says Della May Moore, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. "It is important that we set standards and let the professionals who are closest to the students decide how to reach them and how to teach.''

Yet, many local officials are far from sure that the current graduation test is the best way to sort out which students deserve diplomas.

"We ought to be accountable,'' agrees John Horn, the superintendent of the 28,000-student Mesquite Independent School District. "But too many people have this belief that they can put their faith in numbers, and this testing program has become almost a runaway train in the nation.''

He fears an altogether different trend.

"There is a diminishing value being placed on the authority of teachers to assess student learning,'' the superintendent says. "We are placing confidence in a test that is probably not very well founded.''

"It's one thing to say this is the problem,'' Horn says, agreeing that Texas schools must get better. "It's another thing to find the best solution. What you want to get is excellence, not compliance.''

The Lucky Ones

Garrett Cramer, a graduating senior at North Mesquite High School, thinks of himself as "above average but lazy.'' He might also add that he's prone to understatement. After learning that he's finally passed the Texas graduation exam in early May, his calm words at first seem to betray his beaming face.

"I'm much happier now,'' the 18-year-old says, smiling hugely. "Actually, I have no nails,'' he adds, holding up the backs of his hands. "My whole life really depended on this.''

Three days after graduation in late May, Garrett was scheduled to head for Chicago to join the Navy, in preparation for work as a submarine navigator. "I couldn't imagine having to go through this again and then having to wait,'' he says. "It is so depressing.''

Garrett, who remembers waiting nervously along with other seniors to hear their test scores from school counselors, was one of the lucky ones. After four tries, he passed the writing portion of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. His classmate, Leasha Burks, also got good news.

Leasha recalls the anxious walk after getting a pass from a morning class to meet with her counselor. But even more, she remembers the welcome news that followed.

"It was like somebody took a ton of bricks off my back,'' she says. After finishing the exam, she thought she had done well, even without the reinforcements she had brought along.

"I had my Bible in front of me and my cross on, and before it started I said, 'Lord, let me pass it.'''

Both Leasha and Garrett have misgivings about the test--the way it pressures and labels students and forces many of their teachers to focus narrowly on TAAS preparation.

"My junior year, that's all it was,'' says Garrett. "Everything was TAAS, the whole school just about shut down for two weeks of tutoring before we all took it.''

Bill Scott, a school counselor at North Mesquite High for 27 years, says the test takes about one-third of his time. He sees it as little more than a burdensome state mandate.

"It's a frustrating thing for us, and it's a gut-wrenching thing for the students,'' he says. "I don't know how some of them do it. I commend them for having the want-to.''

At North Mesquite High, Scott says, many teachers don't see the test as something that can help guide their instruction. And not all teachers use the results as a way to learn what their students are missing in class.

"I don't know the big picture of what the state wanted,'' Scott says. "But I would guess that's what it is--to get the kids having problems remediation earlier.''

The policy side of the graduation test is easily lost between the agony of the students who don't pass and the jubilation of those who are finally cleared for commencement.

"I was yelling at the top of my lungs,'' says Leasha, who works two part-time jobs and hopes to go to college and become a stockbroker. "I hadn't done any of the senior stuff because I didn't know how things were going to go, so I just watched them all having fun.''

"Yesterday,'' she recalls, "I just sat out in my car and kept looking at my tassel and thought, 'This is really going to happen.'''

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