Proficient at What?

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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 task in itself for some, whose chubby, short fingers tried mightily to color within the lines, a task not yet mastered even with big-page coloring books.

I saw chagrin in my students' faces as they entered our classroom. Their desks, usually clustered in small groups, were isolated into 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 and word walls, textbooks were marooned into a far corner instead of beneath each owner's chair, and all indications of the children's talents--their creative writing, their maps of their favorite imaginary places, even their drawings--were removed or blanketed from view. Our room, usually vibrant and full of color and life, looked to be preparing for a whitewash. Indeed, perhaps it was.

Before testing began, we met in the "community circle," a daily reintroduction to one another where we share our hopes, our fears, and our hands. I looked around at the tired, Monday-morning eyes of my 25 students. All indications were 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, a few looked forward to the afternoon assembly, one stated that the day's end would mean one less day of BSAPs (lots of sympathetic groans of agreement), but most took the option that they always have but seldom choose: "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. They, like we, needed to be oiled, and these simple physical movements seemed to do the trick. When we closed our circle, eyes looked brighter, banter was common, and giggles about something humorous only to 5th graders was making its way around this arc of bodies.

Then, it was time. Thick, anonymous test booklets were distributed, and children were given the standardized welcome provided by their designers: 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 the cover was allowed to be unsealed, the children again were reminded of the rules. They could not work ahead, nor were they allowed to look at a book or anything else if they happened to finish early. 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, and the number of test questions they had remaining, in hopes that they would reach simultaneous closure. So, under these "ideal" conditions, the opening volley was heard: "You may begin."

For 15 minutes or so, there was little more to see than children hunched over their desks. The only sounds were occasional sniffles and coughs and the near-silent rubbing of an eraser to correct something wrong. But then, after the first few easy questions were completed, and the children were hooked into believing these tests weren't really as bad as they thought, a sneak attack of those questions "you weren't expected to know" appeared.

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."

If this is not appropriate for intelligent lawmakers and governors—and it is not—then neither is it beneficial for my students.

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

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

Unconvinced, he shrugged his shoulders and carelessly circled 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, there were few other questions asked, although there were many obvious in the motions of my students. I watched Jesse, a bright boy with some reading problems, as he bit his pencil end and twisted his long, blond hair with a finger of frustration. He had wanted to do well, I knew, but his body language indicated that he didn't think that was going to happen. 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 of her answers. Her motions were frenetic; I'd assume 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. Perhaps, in her eyes, it was easier to do no work than to prove to others by your wrong answers that you really weren't very smart. And Reggie, always jolly and rambunctious, said the test was real, real easy and he completed it in 10 minutes. If only he had read the questions before he answered them, I'm sure his score might be higher.

For 90 minutes, with occasional breaks to stop one portion of the test and begin another, 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 microphone call finally came--"That concludes today's testing"--the children rushed, madly and with absolutely no decorum, to a restroom that many had probably needed to use two subtests 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 the work my students had done up until March 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 they were deprived of the guidance and assistance of a teacher they had previously looked toward to give both. I learned that 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 these worst of conditions.

Perhaps at the next session of the South Carolina General Assembly, where politicians discuss the sad state of affairs in our public schools, we should give each legislator a couple of No. 2 pencils, a booklet of meaningless stories and questions, sit them at small tables with chairs that do not move, refuse to allow in any coffee and refuse to permit any 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.

We can do the same in Illinois for the IGAPs; in Texas for the TAAS; or in any of the many other states that try to probe something as complex as learning through a device as simplistic as an acronym-laden test of basic skills.

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.

James R. Delisle is a professor of education at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, and the author of eight books. He wrote this essay while teaching 4th and 5th grade in a rural South Carolina school while on sabbatical in 1997.

Vol. 17, Issue 36, Pages 37, 39

Published in Print: May 20, 1998, as Proficient at What?
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