(Tonia) fell three points short of Proficiency by the test's measure, and while she is by far the most passionate young writer in my junior high class, she is one of only a few not deemed Proficient or Advanced in writing. And of courses, test scores don't lie.
Tonia will not leave. She is here in Juneau with me, her chocolate eyes and smiling face staring back from every page, every computer screen, every thought. This quiet eighth-grader is an English teacher's dream lugging around her spiral-bound journals, writing volumes of poetry, professing her desire to be a writer when she grows up.
Tonia's rollercoaster life is filled with tales of foster homes, playing mother to her two young brothers, her mother's alcoholism. There are also struggles with common adolescent woes. And now a standardized test - the same test given to all eighth-grade students in the state of Alaska - may have taken from her the only dream that appeared within reach.
The Alaska Benchmark Exam for eighth-grade students officially declares from its realm of academic certainty that Tonia, who asks questions about the new vocabulary she encounters in books, writes out her dreams in story form, and fills no less than six notebooks a year with prose and poetry, is Below Proficient as a writer. She fell three points short of Proficiency by the test's measure, and while she is by far the most passionate young writer in my junior high class, she is one of only a few not deemed Proficient or Advanced in writing.
And of courses, test scores don't lie.
Tonia failed to provide correct responses to multiple choice questions on a writing test. Her Athabascan heritage and cultural understandings of the world aren't based on a, b, c, or d answers. Tonia thinks in terms of stories. I know because I am her teacher. The last two years have been spent with Tonia and her classmates in my Language Arts classroom, where we write every day and study everything in the junior high curriculum - plus some. We have the state content and performance standards covered and even devoted countless hours to reviewing every question on the practice test for the Benchmark Exam.
I think of Tonia as I sit in this beautiful university library, and I can't help but wonder: Will she ever sit here? Will the standardized assessments meant to align our curriculums and ensure educational accountability leave her stranded as a learner in the long run? What if she does not pass the writing portion of the Graduation Qualifying Exam - the high stakes test that will determine whether she receives a high school diploma or a certificate of completion?
And more central to my current fears: What if she changes her mind about writing? What if she no longer feels competent to record the stories so crucial to her life and her heritage? What will become of her dreams and aspirations as a result of this test?
Tonia has the potential and determination to become anything she wants to be. What she needs is support, opportunity and the respect she deserves as a student and as a human being. She is not a test score. She is a little girl with big dreams. She is a writer to the core - and that is a true assessment of her abilities. But the Benchmark Exam does not include teacher comments.
Tonia's words accompany her face in my mind's eye. She recites an original poem; she grins and shows me her essay about what she wants to be when she grows up: a writer, the essay states. An author, a poet, she says. Then the curtain falls on her performance: One of a million computer-printed assessment reports, generated in bulk and delivered to students who once had dreams of something more in this world.
I watch as the scene fades and realize my time as a silent audience member is over. My voice and the reality and import of what I know as Tonia's teacher must be shared with those who make the policies that affect students' lives as learners, our lives as educators. Passivity on my part is no longer an option.
Tonia's test scores have been tallied as a statistic in the state, recorded in her cumulative file, and cried over at the kitchen table. Perhaps the test is over for this year, but my story of the testing of Tonia is just beginning. Tonia and her Alaskan peers who are experiencing similar fates deserve the commitment and fervor and action of the teachers who teach them, the educators who profess to care.
Tamara Van Wyhe teaches English at Kenny Lake School in the Copper River School District and serves as president of the Alaska Council of Teachers of English. She is participating in the Bread Loaf writing program at UAS this summer.
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