Some of these kids struggle mightily in class, but with a handful of intense exceptions (tube feedings and drooling, behavior disorders that consistently result in smashed desks and/or broken bones, or utterly intellectually disabled—formerly known as "mentally retarded") my students are expected to take and pass the same Big Test as everyone else, which means that their classroom teacher and I are responsible for teaching these kids how to multiply fractions and write five-paragraph essays so that they might be successful in life, regardless of conditions at home or inside their brains.
Thanks to the Federal law known as "No Child Left Behind," every child at my school from third grade on up needs to take and prove themselves proficient in reading, writing and mathematics on a multiday test known as the Standards Based Assessment (SBA) each spring lest my school be labeled as "failing," which might result in vague "staff changes" or outright takeover by the state. This includes the child who currently sleeps in the cab of a pickup with his Grandmother—two peas in a battered 1978 Ford 150 pod, shivering out the first real snowstorm of the season together due to the facts that 1. drugged out mom's gangster boyfriend just kicked them out of the single-wide trailer and 2. they ran out of gas money and had to wait until the morning came and offered up the chance to hit up a couple of teachers for a few bucks lest they spend another night in the school parking lot.
The federally mandated test is designed to measure just how well my elementary school performs its sacred duty of teaching academic fundamentals to its students. To this end, in my opinion, the test is a good measure of what kids should know by now, at least in a perfect world, but the fact is that my school doesn't exist in a perfect world. Indeed, my quaint little school (giant vigas, real adobe bricks, sporadic internet, rusted playground) exists in a community mired in drug and alcohol addiction, generational poverty, and political corruption—a perfect storm of misery that makes life progressively worse as time goes by, particularly for those students already trapped in challenging situations, ie born to a 15-year-old mother who had enough opiates and Mad Dog in her system to cause her newborn infant to have the "tremors" of withdrawal symptoms for a month or two after his entry into this world, not to mention long-term effects like fetal alcohol syndrome, a perpetually low IQ, learning disabilities, and/or an inability to deal with the realities of life, including basics like competently wiping his own ass (at age 10) or writing the ABCs or counting to fifty.
To put it mildly, life is tough for my students, yet they are expected to score just as highly as their peers at, say, Los Alamos Municipal Schools (one of the wealthiest counties in America) or Eldorado Elementary (a fairly well-to-do subdivision of Santa Fe definitely NOT rife with the vicious cycle of pain and suffering so common in my school district).
Everybody knows my students are probably going to fail the test: "BEGINNING STEP" will be their official score, a bit of Orwellian speak used by higher-ups at all levels of educational bureacracy to candy-coat underlying economic and social injustices as well as to justify sanctioning of schools, or—coming soon—punishment of those teachers who just can't seem to get through to the children of crackheads, incarcerated gang members and sexually abusive grandfathers.
As I said, I'm familiar with the test and see it as a reliable gauge of what students in many schools SHOULD have learned, but judging entire schools and especially the performance of individual teachers according to the dictates of this single, stressful test makes no sense, particularly if homeless kids, special education students and those whose reading abilities are many grades below their peers are included in the final class and schoolwide aggregate scores.
These kids should be with their peers as much as possible, and their curriculum should be as rigorous as their abilities permit, but by forcing them to take the standarized test we are literally setting them up for failure.
Sometime next summer, after spring test results are tallied, New Mexico Public Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera will post a big chart on her office wall at the PED, and I—along with my coworkers, my students and my school—will be labeled as a failure. Heads will roll, principals will be transferred, superintendents will be replaced, and our school will be downgraded from bad to worse.
Meanwhile, I'll continue to dip into my $30,000 annual salary so I can buy jackets and shoes for my students in hopes that they might stay warm and feel good about themselves. I'll keep stuffing books and granola bars into their backpacks in hopes that they may digest a little of both. I'll spend evenings and part of my weekend painstakingly creating practical lessons (counting money at the grocery store, recognizing road signs, reading a menu) in hopes that they might learn some usable life skills. And I'll hold them firmly but lovingly in my arms while they thrash about and scream in anger and grief about emotional and physical traumas I know I'd never be tough enough to handle.
My efforts will go unnoticed by the educational powers that be—standardized tests don't gauge good intentions, compassion or general human decency—but I'll keep plugging away in hopes that (as cheesy at it sounds) I might offer a "beginning step" to a student seeking guidance in a dark sea of hopelessness.