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None Of The Above

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After his kids come down with exam-day blues, a teacher argues that standardized, fill-in-the-bubble tests are not the answer.

I wondered if my students were in as much pain as I was for them. It was time for the BSAPs, the Basic Skills Assessment Program tests used throughout South Carolina to show how much students have grown academically from one year to the next. For 90 minutes each morning for five days, students in grades 2-5 stopped learning and began bubbling in circles, an arduous job in itself for some, whose chubby fingers tried mightily to color within the lines, a task not yet mastered even with big-page coloring books.

I saw chagrin on my students' faces as they entered our 5th grade classroom. Their desks, usually clustered in small groups, now stood in rows, reminiscent of bleak, washed-out photos from "the good ol' days" when the teacher was a schoolmarm, a wood stove provided heat, and bolts and screws kept the desks immobile. Newspapers covered the alphabet charts, textbooks were marooned in a far corner, and all displays of the children's work and talents--their creative writing, their maps of their favorite imaginary places, even their drawings--were removed or screened from view. Our room, usually vibrant and full of color and life, looked prepared for a whitewash. Indeed, perhaps it was.

It was our custom to meet each morning in the "community circle," a daily reintroduction to one another where we shared our hopes, our fears, and our hands. On this Monday morning, I looked out at 25 pairs of tired eyes. It appeared that many had ignored my suggestion to get a good night's sleep and eat well to prepare for the tests. The open-ended phrase of the day was "I know this will be a good day because . . ." As we went around the circle, several mentioned after-school sports and a few looked forward to the afternoon assembly. One stated that the day's end would mean one less day of BSAPs, drawing lots of sympathetic groans of agreement. But most took the option that they always had but seldom chose: "Pass." This no-comment comment said more than the other responses combined. It's hard to hush up a 5th grader's mind and mouth, but BSAPs do it well.

We did a few calisthenics, stretching to the sky and reaching for our toes. The grunts and moans sounded like so many reluctant lawn mowers struggling to kick over after a restful winter slumber. Eventually, however, the children's simple movements seemed to work. When we closed our circle, eyes looked brighter, banter was common, and giggles were making their way around the arc.

Then, it was time. I distributed thick, anonymous test booklets, each stamped with the commands: DO NOT open your test booklet. DO NOT begin until you are told to do so. DO NOT look at anyone else's answer sheet.

Once I let the children unseal their booklets, they were confronted by even more rules. They could not work ahead. If they happened to finish early, they were not allowed to look at a book or anything else. They were to answer as best they could, although they were not expected to know how to do some of the problems. They were to keep an eye on the clock, as well as the number of test questions they had remaining, in hopes that they would reach simultaneous closure. So, under these "ideal" conditions, the opening volley sounded: "You may begin."

For 15 minutes or so, there was little more to see than children hunched over desks. The only sounds were occasional sniffles and coughs and the near-silent rubbing of erasers on answer sheets. But then, after the first few questions were completed, just as the children were hooked into believing these tests weren't really all that bad, they were hit with a sneak attack of those questions "you weren't expected to know."

Brandon called me to his desk. "What's this word, Mr. D? I've never seen it before!"

"I can't tell you, Brandon. I can only tell you to try your best."

He looked angry. "If you tell me the word, maybe I've heard it, and I can figure out what it means."

I looked at the word and wondered if I'd ever used it myself in 5th grade. I gave an illegal hint: "Use context clues, Brandon. Maybe then you'll be able to at least eliminate one or two choices that they gave you."

Brandon looked resigned to getting the answer wrong. Our class's brightest child, Brandon had most likely used that method already. His appeal to me had been a sign of desperation; I was his last resort before he made a mistake in vocabulary, an area where he had previously felt confident and successful.

"Maybe this is one of those questions you're not supposed to know, Brandon."

Unconvinced, he shrugged his shoulders and carelessly filled in "D"--a wrong choice. Then he moved on without looking up to me. As I walked away, I heard him mutter to himself, "And I thought teachers were supposed to help you learn stuff."

After that, few other students asked questions, though it was obvious they were struggling. I watched Jesse, a bright boy with some reading problems, as he bit the end of his pencil and twisted his long blond hair with a finger of frustration. He had wanted to do well, but his body language indicated that he didn't think that possible now. Shatiqua, a perfectionist who took every task seriously, rushed to the end of the first test and then went back to change more than half her answers. Her motions were frenetic; I assumed her thinking was, too. Carter's pencil sat alongside his elbow, still as sharp as new, 15 minutes after the test began. He had correctly answered three or four questions, leaving the rest blank. "You've still got time to finish some questions," I reminded Carter. He told me he knew that, but he didn't care to because the stories were too boring. "Can't they give us something fun to read? I could answer lots of questions about a Goosebumps book."

Caryn, a sad, lost soul on the best of days whose academic struggles are accompanied by a pitiful home life, followed Carter's lead. To her, perhaps, it was easier to do no work than to have your wrong answers prove that you weren't very smart. And Reggie, always jolly and rambunctious, said the test was real, real easy; he completed it in 10 minutes. If only he had read the questions before he answered them, I'm sure he might have scored higher.

For 90 minutes, with occasional breaks between subsections of the test, the students did what was uncommon and unnatural: They sat, quiet and motionless, in desks that were never designed for such extended stays. They squirmed as if they were sitting in a mixture of Jell-O and rocks. When the call came over the loudspeaker--"That concludes today's testing"--the children rushed, madly and with absolutely no decorum, to use a restroom that many had probably needed two subsections ago.

I'm not sure what the students learned that day. Neither are they. But I do know what I learned. I learned that my students' varied ways of learning were not respected by a test that demanded only one type of response. I learned that my students' work had to be covered up with newspapers so they did not "cheat" by referring to a word or a concept they had learned previously. I learned that my students were expected to do their best even when deprived of the guidance and assistance of a teacher they had previously turned to for both. I learned that their physical needs had to wait until all the test bubbles were filled in throughout the school. I learned that my students were expected to give their best under the worst of conditions.

P erhaps the next time lawmakers in any state meet to write new laws to fix the sad state of affairs in our public schools, we should give each of them a couple of No. 2 pencils and a booklet of meaningless stories and questions, sit them at small tables with chairs that do not move, deny them coffee or restroom breaks, and then ask these men and women to "show us their best thinking" from the multiple choices given in their test booklets. And, just to keep things fair, we'll ask them to do this for five mornings in a row.

If this is not appropriate for intelligent lawmakers and governors--and it is not--then neither is it beneficial for Jesse or Shatiqua or Carter or Brandon, my students, each of whom is trying to be smart, and all of whom deserve the right to show what they know in ways that are personally meaningful, legitimate, and humane.

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