One of my most vivid memories of teaching 5th grade was the morning I pulled into the parking lot only to notice my student, Kyle, and his younger sisters walking to school. They emerged out of the mobile home park where they lived, crossed the bus lot, and stopped by the back school door. Kyle then checked both of his sisters’ backpacks and gave each girl a hug before sending them down the K-2 hall.
I was fascinated to watch Kyle and the gentle care he exhibited toward his sisters. I knew the children’s home life was chaotic and that they often got themselves up and ready for school without adult assistance. Kyle was 13 years old and in the 5th grade, a product of being retained twice in elementary school. He struggled with anything academic and tried everything to avoid reading, not because he wanted to be difficult but because he knew he was behind and didn’t want to be reminded of it yet again. When end-of-grade testing rolled around, Kyle knew he wouldn’t pass either the reading or the math tests, and I knew it, too. He had worked hard all year, but knew that it would still not be enough. He was painfully aware that his academic worth was being judged by a test he took on two days in May, and he wouldn’t measure up.
I taught Kyle over ten years ago, and he is now a man in his mid-twenties. I’ve often wondered what happened to Kyle and to other students I taught similar to him. More than once, Kyle told me that he would probably drop out of school when he turned 16, not because he didn’t value education but because he was tired of being told he was a failure. The educational system judged him based solely on his end-of-grade test scores. Just as Hester Prynne had a scarlet “A” emblazoned on her chest, Kyle may as well have had a “1” or a “2,” both failing scores, emblazoned on his.
The heartbreaking part is that Kyle was not a failure. He loved to build things. He often told me about helping paint a friend’s house, put on a roof, or build something with a hammer and nails. Kyle loved the satisfaction of seeing the product of a day’s labor. Unfortunately, these alternative skills are not valued in our educational system. We tell all students that they have to pass their end-of-grade tests in elementary and middle school or be retained. In high school, they have to pass end-of-course tests or not graduate. What we fail to consider is what happens to the students who try and try again but still can’t pass the tests. How can we keep telling these students that yet again they just don’t measure up? How can we let them view themselves as failures when in reality it is the system failing them?
I can’t help but wonder how students’ futures may change if we view our schools as cafeterias in which students, with the help of knowledgeable adults, craft their own educational plans. This may mean that some students load their schedules with Advanced Placement courses with plans to attend a four-year university, while others choose to focus on hands-on classes with the intent of apprenticing with a local builder. This may also mean that not all students graduate with the same number of courses in academic areas or even courses of the same rigor. While most schools require Algebra II to graduate, I do not honestly think Algebra II is necessary to succeed in life. Give students options that may better suit them. Allow students to take a course that benefits them instead of being told they are a failure and don’t deserve to graduate because they can’t pass Algebra II.
While some people may view this proposal as watering down the educational system, I view it as building a system that provides a more valuable education to more students. Our current system provides one path, pass all the tests every year until you graduate. Jump through the hoops the system has set for you so you will be deemed a success. But what about the students who repeatedly try but still can’t pass the tests? What about the 13-year-old in 5th grade who just sees three more years of failure until he can drop out of school so he can stop being told he is an academic failure?
This is what our test-obsessed system is creating, a generation of students who give up on school because they just can’t pass the test. If this is what we have come to, we aren’t providing education for all in which no child is left behind. We are leaving behind children every day, children who are successful enough to single-handedly get their little sisters to school on time in the morning yet are called failures by the school’s standards. These students aren’t failing; we are failing them by failing to recognize that a one-size-fits-all test-focused education fits just one subset of students. We are failing students by not providing multiple paths to graduation. We must do a better job. We must recognize that society benefits when everyone’s skills are utilized. We must value hands-on abilities as much as we value intellectual ones. We must give students like Kyle a chance to use their gifts, too.