Final Exam

By Lonnie Harp — September 01, 1994 20 min read

The relaxation coach grips his white coffee cup and glances every so often at his watch as he paints a word picture of a warm, soothing beach. In hushed phrases, he calmly sketches the scene for the 14 teenagers sitting at tables with their heads down. They look as if they’re off dreaming—or 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 imagining the beach. Or he could be concentrating on his breathing, which the soft-spoken man is now encouraging. Or he might still be trying to figure out how he got into this bind.

A week ago, he walked into West Mesquite High School in Mesquite, Texas, just east of Dallas, confident about his future. But before the first-period bell rang, a counselor told him the news: In order to graduate from high school later in the month, he had to pass the last-chance 60-question standardized math test that awaits him now when he raises his head and opens his eyes.

This is how Texas guarantees that its high school diplomas are worth something. Every student must pass a reading, writing, and math test sometime before the end of their senior year—or receive an exemption because of a learning disability. The state is confident about the system. The numbers look good: Sixty-seven percent of the 1993-94 junior class passed the exit test by Christmas, up from 54 percent the year before and 48 percent the year before that.

Two years ago, when the state school board was tempted to put off raising the passing standard on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills—as the test is officially called—Gov. Ann Richards stood up for the higher standards. She argued that moving the passing mark from 60 percent to 70 percent on TAAS—essentially a 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. It’s then up to districts, schools, parents, and students to strive to meet those expectations. But this approach to leveraging change has a human toll, and that toll is greatest on teenagers like 18-year-old Dustin Sutton and the other eight boys and five girls now huddled around these tables. After many tries, they have not yet passed the test. It is their struggle and the frustration of their families that state officials are coldly counting on to force schools to change. But often this struggle and frustration fails to fuel the hoped-for improvements and converts to anger and resentment instead.

On Monday, May 2, one week before the last-chance test is to be administered, counselor Deborah Mayfield arrives at school feeling sick. She knows why. Today, she and the other counselors at West Mesquite High must tell the seniors who have yet to pass the graduation exam how they did on their most recent try. Some have passed. But others, like Dustin Sutton, have failed again. They will have only one more shot. On the week of the annual senior breakfast, as most seniors’ thoughts turn to leaving school, these students are left wondering whether they will ever get out.

Just the thought of breaking the news to the students makes Mayfield’s stomach begin to cramp. “I dread this day as if it were my own son,” the counselor says. “We know their goals and aspirations. We know that they are taking it very seriously. That diploma means a whole lot.” Last year was the first year this particular task fell to Mayfield. “I cried like a baby right along with the kids,” she says.

The counselors receive the students in square offices behind painted cinder-block walls. College catalogues line their bookshelves. Testing materials and memos sit in piles on their filing cabinets and chairs. Hall passes, reminder slips, and snapshots of kids at the prom clutter their desktops. Signs dividing students alphabetically by last name hang above their doorways. Today, all of the counselors have stocked up on tissues. One has even gone the extra step of getting paper towels from a bathroom, fearing that one-ply won’t do.

“They’re mad at everybody,” says Anna Smith, the school’s lead counselor, after delivering the test news to her batch of seniors. “They are mad at the school and the teachers . . . We ask ourselves, ‘What can we do?’ It’s just so sad.”

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 [the reasons],” she says. But for the students who have not satisfied the graduation-exam requirement, the reasons are not so apparent.

Fox called Dustin into her 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, Fox called in his twin sister, who passed the exit test earlier in the spring. Inside the counselor’s office, the brother and sister cried and hugged. Jennifer called their father at work. Dustin called his Marine recruiter; his goal is to become a Marine drill instructor.

“This is putting his whole life on hold, and it hasn’t done anyone any good,” Fox says. She sorts through a stack of photos and finds 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,” Fox says, a bit piqued herself. “This is a kid with a plan that is realistic.”

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

By afternoon, Dustin is long gone. After checking himself out of school, he headed for his grandparents’ house, where he spends the rest of the day fuming. Had he spent much more of the day at school, he explains later, he would have exploded.

Test or no test, these are days of passage for Dustin, a strong and freckled son of Texas who likes country music and rodeo. After 18 years in a close-knit family, he is eager to launch out for boot camp and a military career that he feels certain 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. “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 how he has learned that love is built out of caring and trust and affection—soft emotions that he describes as if he were the first to discover them. He is struggling to understand the personal impulses that have thus far proved his undoing on paper-and-pencil tests: the way he jumps to conclusions, the way he finds it difficult to linger with questions and discern precisely what is being asked. It is not hard to understand his fascination with bull riding, where the cowboy sits atop a mad beast and basically holds on for dear life. “It’s all in the hands and knees,” Dustin says with a smile. “You just hang on.”

When Dustin was younger, some people called him a punk because he displayed 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’ve had a blast, and I’ve made A’s and B’s for once.”

One of Dustin’s teachers 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. “My whole life stops for that one test,” Dustin says angrily. “When Mrs. Fox told me I hadn’t passed, all I could see was my sister walking across the stage and me not there. 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. 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. Something miraculous.”

Before the Sutton family settled in Mesquite a few years ago, Don Sutton, Dustin’s father, was a preacher. But times have been tough. There was a divorce, a new home, and cutting corners to make ends meet. Don Sutton chose a new line of work 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.”

Unlike his son, the mild-mannered single parent speaks in serious, measured phrases. In the spacious living room of his modest ranch-style home, Sutton rests in a recliner in his stocking feet. He acknowledges that it’s been hard to concentrate on much of anything since Jennifer called him in tears Monday morning. “I could tell when she called that Dustin went from a high that morning when he was getting ready for school to a zero,” Sutton says. “It’s been 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. 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. For your child, if you had to, you’d nearly jump off a building.”

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 backfired. Since Monday, she has been pushing Carey, her youngest, to study and try one last time to pass the graduation test. “This is tearing us apart,” Monroy says, fighting back tears.

Between the front door and the living room of the Monroys’ house 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 dress. In the middle of the wall is an identical graduation portrait of Stacy, the middle child. A blank space waits for Carey’s picture, which mother and daughter had planned to have taken this week at a local photo studio.

“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 admits that she herself is befuddled by many of the questions. “I can’t help her,” Monroy says. “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 to help her prepare for the exam. But it’s the same coaching and preparation that has left her short of a passing grade many times before. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Monroy 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 Dustin’s elementary school days. He remembers his son as a lazy student who daydreamed of baseball, 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 them at home,” he says. “So something like this makes you wonder if you’ve failed.”

Sutton has a hard time not blaming himself, but he believes fault lies with others, as well. “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.”

This week will pit his son’s resolve against the mediocre education that has made this test so hard, Sutton says. Dustin is not ready to give up, he adds. “The strongest part about Dustin is his comeback.”

At the annual senior breakfast, some members of the graduating class begin to cry (others smirk) when the voice of a teacher, a member of a faculty guitar trio serenading the students, cracks a bit. “These are the days you’ll remember,” the teacher sings. “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, faces a cowboy painted on a side wall, and sings West Mesquite’s alma mater. “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 tables. 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, instead, 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 class valedictorian Rhodeshia Johnson, a tall and pretty 18-year-old, dressed smartly for the occasion. “This is a time when you really reflect on what you’ve done here,” she explains, “the friends you’ve made and the teachers you’ve had.”

By fall, Rhodeshia plans to be enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, working toward a degree in electrical engineering. Asked about the graduation test, Rhodeshia says she took and passed it early in her junior year. “I didn’t think much of it,” she says. “It seemed like an easy test.”

She adds: “There are still some people taking it. They’re coming down to the last day or two.”

Mabel Santos remembers the senior-year revelry with some bitterness. She was supposed to graduate from high school in the spring of 1993. Of the six children in her family, she would have been the third to graduate. But she failed the final test by three questions.

“I thought I had passed because the test seemed easy,” says Santos, sitting at a table near the back of a local McDonald’s. “Everyone in my family and church and my friends were looking forward to graduation. When I told them, they all said, ‘No. No way.’ They just couldn’t believe it.”

Remembering it now, Santos says flatly, “It was like I hadn’t gone to school at all.” She skipped classes on the day everyone rehearsed for commencement because she couldn’t stand the thought of being there.

Santos enrolled in a summer course, hoping to get a general equivalency diploma (GED) so she could go on to college. In the meantime, she took the exit exam again and once more missed by three questions.

She 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.” A shy person, Santos found it hard to raise her hand when she had a question in class. “A lot of times,” she says, “you feel stupid if you ask a question that somebody already knows.”

This past spring, she put aside the GED course and gave the test one more try. Just this week, Deborah Mayfield, her old counselor at West Mesquite High, called with the good news; she passed and could come by anytime to 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.”

As he stares at a math problem on the gray computer screen, Dustin is somewhere between the agony and the ecstasy that surround his final days of school. One boy sits at a table 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 home-economics room watching the movie Glory on video.

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

Doug Barber, a young and patient teacher who also coaches football, moves quickly and quietly around the room. He started the year with 74 seniors and is now down to nine. He feels the deadline looming as much as any of the remaining students, even though he personally has nothing at stake.

“It gets real intense,” he says in a near 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.” Barber walks over and reminds Dustin that distance equals rate times time. Dustin works through the problem.

Barber strolls back across the room. He asks a question that he has been unable to answer—namely, why some of his weaker students are now watching a movie next door while others are still in this room. “A lot of them are good students,” he says. “Their parents call, and they try hard. There are a few who have real weak math skills, but most of them are poor test-takers. There’s not anything on there that is tough math. The hard part is whether you can pull the right information out of the problem.”

The reason that is the hard part, some people at West Mesquite believe, is that most math teachers are content to have students transcribe or memorize formulas and rules and then apply them with numbers that they are simply given. But the state’s test expects students to go a step further. It asks them to discern the pertinent information from word problems and then use the rules and formulas to find the solutions. That first step, some teachers at the school say, is a weak link in students’ learning. Also, rather than push students toward more advanced classes, the test has created a new layer of remedial courses. And more are on the way. Next year, the TAAS exit exam will include social studies and science sections. Counselors and teachers alike expect even worse problems with those tests—and more remedial courses.

In fact, many Texas educators say the graduation-test requirement seems at odds with other statewide reform initiatives. At West Mesquite High, for example, state law has produced a school-based decisionmaking council meant to boost the professionalism and power of teachers and to increase local accountability. But the members of the council 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 a student’s effort, ambition, and potential.

What’s more, at a time when school districts are doing away with retention in the early grades because it sends a message to children that almost guarantees later failure, high school students on the cusp of entering adulthood are now being held back—their lives shattered—solely on the basis of a test. Not everyone, West Mesquite administrators point out, rebounds like Mabel Santos. Not everyone sticks around to get hammered again and again like Dustin Sutton.

Teachers at West Mesquite High School swallow hard before saying that students like these 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; kids were going to college who couldn’t read. But now we’ve fallen into teaching to a test.”

Across the room, Dustin looks frustrated. The computer has just let him know that he selected a wrong answer. His eyes glance toward Barber and then quickly back to the screen.

“I’m getting careless,” he says quietly.

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 almost everything together. Even though she’s been sure of graduating for a couple of months now after having some TAAS problems of her own, she is angry about the price that Dustin is paying for some policymakers’ peace of mind.

“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. 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 through practice. For the past four years, she was often the one who had to put dinner on the table for her father and three brothers. 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. With the final test just a couple of days away, she recalls times when he would come to her with a math question and keep asking and asking for help. 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.”

The anxiety, she says, will keep building until Dustin finds out his test results. The state expects to notify schools about the final results a few days before the West Mesquite graduation ceremonies. The tension and frustration were so great the other day that Jennifer cried through her second-period class. She cried so hard that some of her friends cried along with her.

For Dustin, the support of his family and peers means a lot. “I’ve seen some kids give up,” Dustin says. “But I now have this whole senior class pulling for me. And if I pass this test, the whole school is going to know it.”

When the day of the test finally 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 in the counselors’ offices, which open on one side to a main hallway. On the other side of the offices is the library. There the scene is still and quiet as the students arrive, one by one, to take the exam.

Counselors Beth Fox and Deborah Mayfield walk around with test materials gathered in their arms. Anna Smith comes in and out. After looking into the library where the students are staking out tables, Smith enters Mayfield’s office. “Whooo,” she sighs. “Talk about tension.”

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 that they are going to take a few minutes for a relaxation drill. The boys and girls put their heads down on the tables. Within minutes, the relaxation coach is pacing with his coffee cup, conjuring up the beach scene.

“Picture yourself taking this terrible, terrible test and realize that you are in control,” he says finally. “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.”

Then he asks the students to slowly open their eyes as he counts backward starting from 20. It’s as if a rocket were about to take off—or a bomb about to explode.

One week before commencement ceremonies, Dustin Sutton learned that he failed the 60-question TAAS math test once again. 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 graduation exam. 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 invited Mabel Santos to participate in commencement ceremonies—one year late. She gladly accepted.
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Final Exam