We move through Hannukah, toward Christmas and Kwanzaa, and other winter holidays of major and minor religions. As the song goes, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”
Maybe not for the students for whom we have once again set up the meatgrinder. The period between Thanksgiving and Winter Break is also the next testing window for those who have been unable to pass Florida’s arduous graduation bar known as the Algebra 1 End of Course exam.
It is time for testing. Time to remove from class those least able to miss it, the ones who struggle to understand mathematical principles and execute mathematical procedures, the ones ground down by the prospect of taking the test for a third, a fourth, maybe even a fifth time.
It is a daunting prospect. Those of us who turn the handle sometimes forget how the chunks of meat feel as they are pushed through the gears that disgorge them from the other end as sloppy strings of muscle and gristle.
Children internalize failure. “I failed” easily becomes “I am a failure.” Adolescents, intensely focused on their developing personalities, are prone to this type of thinking.
We see this inside the testing room. The thinking manifests itself in testing behaviors: students who blast through 34 algebra problems in 20 minutes or less, put their heads down, and go to sleep; students who stare at the screen immobile as they take large chunks of time to answer one question; students who never pick up their pencil and work out a solution on the work folder they are given–it all takes place in their heads even if they need to use the quadratic formula.
The heartwrenching sight of teenagers sitting in a test room and the light goes out of their eyes as they despair of ever passing this test, which in Florida means they will not receive a diploma even when they complete high school … Florida hands them a participation trophy known as a Certificate of Completion. Thanks for playing, kid, better luck in your next life.
The fact is that a lot of young people do not test well. The fact is that many students, whose knowledge and competence their teachers will attest to, have too much trouble negotiating the test platform. They calculate correct answers, but they enter them wrong.
The fact is that many students understand the math, but the way the test presents the problems, the test is a foreign language they do not comprehend.
The most wonderful time of the year–bah, humbug! It’s the time of year when Grumpy Old Teacher (GOT), now tasked with coordinating all testing that goes on in his school except for IB, transmogrifies into Krampus, the Christmas demon. The one who steals the joy from the season with showers of coal.
(Although, given energy prices and fuel shortages these days, maybe we need to revise that cliche.)
But there are those moments when a teenager walks into the testing room to ask why they weren’t given a testing notice, why they weren’t included on the testing roster, and when they will test.
In the twinkling of an eyebeat, Krampus transmogrifies into Grumpy Old Santa, still grumpy but …
He looks up the PSAT score to be sure he will not say something wrong. “You did not pass the test in September, but you scored a 440 on the PSAT in October. That PSAT score is concordant, which means Florida accepts it as passing the Algebra 1 EOC. You are done. You do not need to test anymore.”
A wild flash of joy crosses the teen’s face. Elation! The skies have opened and the angels are singing. Christmas has come indeed, perhaps a few days early, but who’s complaining?
That is how you come to understand the deep and malevolent nature of the meatgrinder. The intense joy is born from the deep despair of someone who thought they would never make it.
GOT (Krampus, GOS, call him what you will) does not live for such moments. He lives for a time when such moments are no longer necessary, a time when the test has been burned in the fireplace to heat the schoolhouse and is no more.