The Testing Machine
The principal with the belly ballooning from his crisp, blue shirt is a former coach and athlete. He’s circling dozens of middle school students in the cafeteria. I’m here to do research at this public school in San Antonio and have never seen, didn’t know, it could be like this. And I’ve observed schools all over Texas.
I can feel the sweaty rage across the cafeteria, where I’m drinking coffee. He hasn’t seen me—too busy yelling. His game face is on, and his team is losing. Coach’s battle voice pollutes the air. His words slap, bruise and punch in ways you can’t see, but will keep me up all night.
“You faaaaaiiiiiled!” He keeps saying it.
The former coach is blaming the students for their poor grades. Some are stupified with shame, smiling, pretending this is cool. They are too old to melt into nothingness and too young to give him the finger.
The school is testing for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) benchmarks before the real TAKS test, which determines which students progress to the next grade. The tests, administered by the Texas Education Agency, also determine how the school is rated academically. Benchmark testing is supposed to help schools project how students will perform on the actual TAKS. If too many students fail in the spring, the principal’s job, along with everyone else’s in the administration, is at stake. The school I’m visiting is considered at-risk for being labeled “low performing.”
The school district, out of desperation, has contracted with a prestigious university, my employer, to help the teachers in math, reading and science. I’m here to gather data about attendance, behavior and grades—key to researching how to reduce dropouts.
At my university, researchers have spent almost 15 years examining the complexities of student success in at-risk schools. We have found that standardized tests like the TAKS are not predictors for high school graduation. Students flunk the TAKS for reasons other than academic skills. Some have oh-my-God! panic attacks. Some, like the dyslexic Albert Einstein, can’t perform well on tests. Many progressive educators believe that standardized tests should enhance the curriculum, not punish students by failing them.
The students, as at most inner-city public schools, are working-class. At this school without windows and with few trees, students are 99 percent brown. In Texas public schools, Latino children make up almost half of the student body: 4.85 million students this year.
The middle school parents seem to be in their 20s and 30s. Some have tattoos. Others look like they just got out of bed. Some have screaming babies. Others wear work uniforms of nurse’s aides and mechanics.
The principal, his administrators and the majority of the teachers live in the suburbs. Some are in the next county, and it takes them an hour to get here. Most don’t know this neighborhood. The vice-principal says she does, but she doesn’t live here, either. There is one recreation center in the area and one library across the freeway. There are no theaters, bookstores or cultural centers.
Hurry up! Move! Pull up your pants! Keep going!
The principal is consumed with discipline and yelling. The principal takes credit for making the school safer. It’s true, the gangs aren’t as visible as in past years. His theory seems to be to instill fear in everyone, and it seems to be working. He’s afraid, they’re afraid. Everyone is afraid of something. But, hey, this is a safe school.
Throughout the day, the vice principals stand in hallways as middle schoolers move from one class to the next in four minutes flat. There’s a lot of yelling to move them. More yelling during their 30-minute lunch. An art teacher calls a student “Bozo” when he gets in the wrong line. There is yelling at the end of the day to get on the bus.
There is no natural light inside the school, which has no windows. There’s a school cop who roams around with handcuffs and a gun. There’s no art on the big walls, no student photography, nothing but Olympic posters and slogans. The blank walls are an icy yellow, and the lockers are brown. This school doesn’t let the students outside during lunch. If they’re not in sports, they don’t go outside, period.
Excitement! Several male students pop firecrackers in the hallway. They are suspended for three days. A brilliant eighth-grader is sent to “alternative” for 45 days after circumventing the school’s Internet censor to see porn. Alternative was designed for criminal behavior, but this school will end up sending almost 40 students there this school year, close to 5 percent of the population. Most students are there for things like fighting, loud-mouthing and smuggling marijuana into the school. The sixth-grader who brought brass knuckles into the boys’ bathroom has been expelled.
The coach and his team are going to get these middle-schoolers ready for the TAKS or else. Between the benchmarks, the testing and the preps, the TAKS takes a month of classroom time every school year. The teachers arrive before 7 a.m. and teach seven classes, with a work period and a 49-minute lunch. Most eat cafeteria food, with its gummy burgers and enchilada Wednesdays. The teachers make their own copies and rush to the bathroom between classes if they’re not patrolling the hallways. They get yelled at, too, if they don’t yell like the principal. Their day ends at 3 p.m., but many stay for meetings, lesson planning or visits with parents. The principal has a new software program that monitors lesson plans, so he can evaluate whether the teacher is “teaching to the test.”
At every weekly meeting that teachers must attend, the principal goes into his coaching zone and criticizes, admonishes and begs the teachers—everything except inspire them. Amidst all his incoherency and platitudes, one sentence is clear: “Hey, if you don’t like it here, I will give you a helluva recommendation … so you can find another job.”
When I share a New York Times sports article with the principal about a former black coach who’s having great success with former gang members in his own school, the assistant superintendent complains that the principal believes I’m promoting criminal behavior.
All the meetings are about one thing: How are the students going to pass the TAKS? The only other vital discussion in the whole school year is about the Christmas party at a downtown hotel. An academic coach shows a PowerPoint of singing reindeer to much applause. The Christmas bash is scheduled for Dec. 12, El dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe, the holiest day for observant Catholics. Even though the brown principal and half of the teachers are probably Catholics, no one says anything about the conflict, except to me.
Because of my job, I get to observe the different seventh-grade classes. There are more than 30 students in most of the math and science classes, and the teachers try hard to ignore whispering, jostling and paper-shuffling. One-third of the class seems to be at risk of failing because of emotional and academic problems. Some are special education students who have been mainstreamed. Some are wannabe gang members. Some are just bored. The teachers must get through their lessons in 45 minutes and don’t seem to breathe the whole time. They are absorbed in their LCD boards, their colorful markers, swooping through the fractions and formulas once and again. They give tips and shortcuts for solving the math problems likely to come up on the TAKS. Pay attention! The front of the class is quiet, but the back third is buzzing at the end of the day. My university’s master teachers are helping teachers keep students engaged with the coursework. Play games, they tell the teachers. Give real-life problems. But the TAKS seems to be the dark cloud in their classroom.
The math teachers call the last period of the day “the class from hell.”
At the end of the third six-week period, in early January, I tell my university that it doesn’t seem right to me that the grade reports show only six seventh-graders out of 350—the target group we’re following—are failing math. I’ve been in those classrooms, observed how one-third aren’t paying attention. How can this be? I’m a product of working-class public schools and know how easy it is to fall behind in math.
“Grades are subjective,” the vice-principal tells me when I talk to her about it. She says that “we go by the TAKS scores.” My university tells me “it’s a good thing” that students aren’t failing and that the school likely wants to encourage borderline students. I can see the fear in the assistant’s eyes as she tells me about her devotion to these students, as if to compensate for choosing the TAKS over coursework. If the students don’t do well on the tests, she’s out of a job, and her career is over. Then what will she do?
In the teachers’ lounge, there is never any discussion of books, films or politics. The administrators never eat with the teachers. The principal’s assistant says she can’t fraternize with the teachers because she evaluates them. The teachers pretty much despise her, seeing her as a woman seeking glory and attention with little regard for them. She used to teach science, and she talks in a technical language that is meant to make others feel less smart.
The principal calls the students knuckleheads at every faculty meeting. Sometimes he calls them cabezones, which sounds better to my ears— pumpkin-heads, meaning stubborn or affectionately rebellious. Now it’s spring, and the faculty meetings are taken up with the assistant’s fiendish attention to TAKS: what students can’t do and what teachers must do. It takes an hour, and that’s just the beginning. There will be special training classes for the teachers on testing rules.
Because of the size of this school, there are students constantly flowing in and out of the vice principal’s office. When I look at the conduct files for the seventh-grade students in one six-week period, I count 30, almost a tenth, who’ve been charged with everything from fighting to tardiness to profanity, like: “I don’t give a shit.” “I don’t fucking care.” “That fucking bitch isn’t gonna talk to me like that.”
When I look at the vice principal’s computerized report on these students, there are only 12 listed with conduct violations in two six-week periods. When I ask the vice principal about this, he jokes and says that the school “refines” the report.
Right before the TAKS week, a seventh-grader named Emily shows up with two lip rings—there are no dress codes here—and the older English teacher freaks out. The teacher tells the student she has to remove the rings. The student resists, telling him her mother said it was OK. There is a big argument between her and the school. Finally the school tells her she can’t take the TAKS unless she removes them. Her parents believe the school, sign, and agree to remove her rings. They don’t know that students have to take the TAKS no matter what, but the school writes down that Emily “will be considered an automatic fail in regards to TAKS test.” Emily is scared. She thinks that her lip piercings will prevent her from getting into the eighth grade.
At the end of the school year, seven of 357 seventh-graders have failed math, according to the official roster. Six have failed English and reading. The school meets the TAKS standards and receives a “recognized” rating. With the help of master teachers, after-school and Saturday morning tutorials, 70 percent of the students have met the standard in math. But do they know how to solve a problem that’s not on the TAKS?
The weeks after TAKS and before school lets out are easy. The principal complains that the students are watching movies in the classrooms. There have been no school trips for these students—no money. As a reward, the principal throws a dance before the buses leave as a kind of party. The DJ spins cumbias, and the girls dance as the boys watch.
The principal wants to take the school to an “exemplary” rating next year. His eyes gleam every time he talks about it. No one smiles.
Bárbara Renaud González lives in San Antonio and is the author of the novel Golondrina, why did you leave me?