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A week of testing puts a school and its students on the edge of their seats

Ohanian Comment: First get yourself a handkerchief. Then consider this question: Does anyone in the world think that this is how children learn? How far back from a lesson or an incident does a teacher have to stand to recognize that what's happening is child abuse?

Why are fifth grades worrying about personification? Why are they getting only a 15 minute break for lunch? Why aren't they given room to explore and enjoy learning? Why? Why? Why?

Instead of desperately drilling kids to meet the standards imposed by the State, this faculty should revolt. They should do it for the sake of the children. By the way, every child pictured in this article in African-American, a searing portrait of the education chasm: children in the affluent suburbs get art and music. Children in poverty schools get memorization drills on personification.

My heart breaks for these children and for this faculty and administrator. The way these children are being cheated made me cry.

This is part of a series, with online chats available. You can e-mail comments and questions about the series to school@post-gazette.com, for possible publication later.

It's the Friday afternoon before next week's big test, and there is no more time, no more energy to practice.

The fifth-graders at Robert L. Vann Elementary School in the Hill District have worked on suffixes and prefixes and synonyms and homophones and literary genres and the elements of a story for months. And as for math skills, forget about it: They have drilled on multiplication and division and fractions and parallelograms and expanded notation and decimals and prime numbers and rounding and measurement and charts all year.

They are tired. And they still have to take the tests, starting the following Monday and running all week.

"There's nobody here who can say they left a stone unturned," principal Martin Slomberg says. "I did all I could do. Teachers did all they could do. Students did all they could do."

From the beginning of the year, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment plagued Vann's children and teachers alike. Like an infection, the test -- and the anxiety it inspires -- insinuated itself into the school's very bloodstream, its every consideration. The stakes were high, after all: A fourth year of sub-par scores on the tests could threaten the school's very survival.

The fifth-graders' teachers reminded them continually that the day's lesson would appear on the PSSA, that they wouldn't have any help on the PSSA, that their scores on the PSSA would show what a good school Vann is -- or isn't, by implication. Many fifth-graders were convinced all year, despite explanations otherwise, that if they failed the PSSA they wouldn't graduate to the sixth grade.

Nothing, and no one, escaped the PSSA's grip on the school.

Not the departure of an outstanding student, whose family moved away back in November: "We're sorry to lose her. That would have helped our test scores," a teacher said regretfully.

Not the once-innocent fun of the Christmas concert in December: "If they can remember music, they can do anything else we need them to do -- pass the tests and everything," music teacher and administrator Suzanne Hill told the audience of parents, grandparents, students and teachers before the fifth grade sang, "Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me."

After the state warned the school about its low test scores last year, Slomberg had students start practicing a "PSSA skill of the week" for 10 minutes after lunch.

This year, he followed the school district's recommendations and increased the time for math instruction from six to 10 hours a week, and increased the time for reading from 14 to 15 hours -- whittling the hours devoted to art, science and social studies in the process. Math class got a full-time assistant for teacher Terea Pope, and Sherrian Mitchell's reading class got writing help from a frequent substitute.

Slomberg cut lunchtime in half, requiring students to read silently in the cafeteria for 15 minutes and giving them 15 minutes to eat.

But still he sometimes wonders if he's doing enough.

"If you are a school where the discipline is good, does that mean instruction is all it should be?" says Slomberg, 53. "I always think we're running a pretty good school, but there are things I need to know, I need to learn, even at my advanced age."

Two weeks before the test, the federal government announces that schools like Vann that are "in improvement" no longer can use a system that once exempted them from punishment if they made incremental gains, but still fell short of state standards. Those standards increased this year from last year's thresholds, which Vann failed to meet.

Vann's students don't know it, but now they will have to satisfy a much higher -- potentially impossibly higher -- standard.

"It blew my mind. It deflated all of us. We've been working so hard and it's like they threw another rock at us, another punch in the gut," Slomberg says. "We know we're not going to get them to proficiency but we can at least move them up."

Mitchell is drilling her students one final time on the Friday before the test and they are totally switched on, yearning to be picked, their feet tapping, their hands waving even more frantically than usual.

In this class, one of the worst punishments is to be passed over, to miss the chance to earn Mitchell's approval, when the fierce, furrowed brow and pursed lips she often juts at them like a ship's captain facing a storm finally relax into a nod of affirmation, a smile.

They have been wearing poster board placards around their necks for days with phrases like, "Ask me about para-," and "Ask me about homophones," and almost everybody knows their drills.

"What's personification?" she asks the class.

Yamin Harris' hand shoots up. He is not wearing his placard, which his mother said made him look like a dog, he says.

"Giving a person a lifeless quality," he says.

"Switch it around," she says. "What is it, Caleb?"

A grin lights up Caleb Perry's face, scraped raw on the left cheekbone.

"Giving a lifeless thing a human quality," he says, stuttering a little over "human."

He aims a triumphant smile at Yamin, who is sitting across the room from him.

"I'll punch you in the face," Yamin threatens in a low voice, glaring at him.

"What are the elements of a story?" Mitchell says.

"Setting," Yamin says.

"Plot," says Jahrod Allen.

"How do you identify the plot?"

"It's the problem," says Kelly Trent.

"And as you're reading about the problem, what are you looking for?"

"The solution," Yamin says.

Yamin Harris: Talking about the standardized tests


Get plenty of sleep and get a good breakfast," Mitchell tells her class as they pull on their coats and backpacks to go home.

"I'm nervous because I might not pass," says Bruce Ganaway.

"We practiced and they taught us about it, so I'm not really worried," Rande Carter says.

Sacoya Scott is heading to her sister's house after school to meditate.

"She tells me meditating will clear my mind," she says.

"I'm scared," Yamin says.

"I'm not scared," Eric Biggs says. "I think it's going to be easy, the little maggot."

"I think it's going to be easy, too," Yamin says.

At school on Monday morning, the first test day, the lights in Slomberg's office have been shining out into the predawn darkness, onto the quiet, sleeping houses across the street, since just after 5 a.m. That's when Barbara Matthews, the head custodian, unlocked the school and switched on the buzzing fluorescent overheads in the office and upstairs in administrator Hill's second-floor music room.

Hill arrives at 6 a.m. and Slomberg a few minutes later, their usual time. They log on to their computers to check for last-minute testing directives, and Hill calls the school board headquarters to see if any teachers called in sick.

Then she starts counting the third-grade and fifth-grade exam booklets for the PSSA. She counted them last week, too, and then locked them up in the office, part of the stringent security measures that the school district's proctor will check when she arrives.

It's 7:15 a.m. and Yamin is leaning his head back against the dining room wall in his mother's apartment, 41/2 blocks from school. He scrubs his eyes with his hands sleepily.

He meant to go to bed early last night, but lost track of time.

"I stayed up a little late playing my game, but I studied," he says.

He answered 75 multiplication questions in three minutes with his little sister, Yazmin, timing him, got them all right and still had 20 seconds to spare, he says.

Eric Biggs: Talking about the standardized tests


Minnie Harris, still bleary-eyed, brings up a stack of neatly folded clothes from the basement. The family doesn't have dressers yet, so she stores their clothes in the basement.

"You sure you're not going to get in trouble for wearing jeans again?" she says, ironing one of his oxford shirts. "They always say something to you, Yamin."

He puts on the jeans anyway, then the shirt and his thick coat, even though it's only 7:30 a.m. and not yet time to leave. He wants to go to school and end the pre-test suspense.

Minnie starts brushing the tangles out of Yazmin's hair, trying to be gentle. Yazmin, sitting in a chair at the dining room table, winces anyway. Yamin leans his right elbow on the table and watches his mom work on his sister's hair.

"He's ready, I guess," Minnie says, eyeing his coat.

At Vann, Slomberg turns the lights on in the auditorium. Downstairs, the lunch ladies are starting to set out doughnuts and Cinnamon Toast Crunch and milk and orange juice for the kids, who will begin arriving in just a few minutes for breakfast.

Minnie finishes slicking Yazmin's hair back into a high ponytail that she fluffs back over her head. She and Yazmin get their jackets on, and the family sets out for school, where she kisses them goodbye at the front steps. Freed, they run into the building.

Eat breakfast, she yells after them.

"I just hope they have a good day without getting into an argument," she says, watching them go inside.

A last-minute emergency: The rulers in the test booklets have extra white space before the first hash mark, potentially throwing off unwary students' measurements. Pope, who has worked relentlessly with her students on measurements in math class, can warn them, but she worries about the change.

"If it doesn't happen at the beginning of the test, they're not going to remember to make that correction."

Mitchell sends her homeroom students off to the first of their math tests with some final exhortations.

"Good luck. Do your best. Just make sure to show your work, show your steps. You need to be thinking how well you're going to do. Think, think, think, think, 'I'm going to do well.' "

Eric Biggs has not arrived, but everyone else lines up at the door to go to math class. Yamin walks down the hall and into class at the head of the line, and they meet up with Pope, who is waiting for them.

As Yamin walks, his right hand rests on Pope's shoulder. In his left hand, he holds a book, "The Life of Honeybees," to read if he finishes early.

More than two hours later, they bounce down the hallway, back to Mitchell's class. Relief.

"That PSSA test in Ms. Pope's class was easy," Sacoya says. "Everything that was in there, she taught us."

They sit down and Mitchell just has to know.

"How many of you thought you did really well?" Mitchell asks.

Everybody raises their hands.

"How many of you struggled a little bit?"

Shantell Boykin, one of the best students in the class, is the only one to put up her hand.

At 11:40 a.m., with the rest of his class having finished the first math test, Eric appears at the door of Mitchell's classroom with a note in his hand. Eyes cast down, he hands the note to Mitchell, sits down and puts his right hand over his face.

Soon, he has put his head down on his desk, arms on each side of his face, hands flopped back over his head, fingers occasionally stroking the space between his braids. He will have to make up the test.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Mitchell asks her students, filling time in the 15 minutes or so before lunch.

"I want to get onto 'American Idol,' " Yamin says.

"What's your second choice?" she asks.

"I'm going to be a doctor. Doctors make the most money," he says.


"A football player, a basketball player or a freestyle rapper," says Marquee James, the boy who can recite Shakespearean sonnets from memory.


He wants to invent popcorn that tastes like Snickers, or maybe Doritos, Rande says.


"A singer, a dancer, a rapper or a doctor."

"What are you going to do to reach your goals?"

"Stay in school," Rande says.

"Go to college," Adrienne Hughes says.

Eric is taking his Harry Potter book, "The Goblet of Fire," to lunch for silent reading period. He still looks groggy.

"How'd you do?" the librarian, Kathleen Gallagher, asks him as she passes him on the stairs.

"I didn't take it. I overslept," he said.

"Did you go to bed at 9 o'clock like I told you?"

"No, I went to bed at like, 1 o'clock."

Her mouth drops open and she stares at him in dismay.

"I was up playing video games," he says and shrugs, smiling apologetically.

People sell drugs out of that row of houses, Yamin says walking home with Yazmin after school, nodding at the men talking and laughing with each other across the street in the spring sunshine.

The men try to act hard, Yamin says. Sometimes they stand too close to him, and sometimes they say things to his mom like, "Hey, little Minnie."

It bothers him, all of it, but there's nothing he can do about it.

"I just walk past fast," he says.

When he and Yazmin get home, Minnie is lying on the couch under a pink quilt, watching Judge Joe Brown on TV.

She asks how his day went -- OK, he says -- and then she shoos Yazmin and him upstairs. The "Jerry Springer Show" is about to come on, and they are not allowed to watch that.

Yamin goes into his mom's room and flops on his stomach onto her bed to play one of their favorite video games, "Def Jam." He turns on her pink Hello Kitty TV set and starts playing, his character punching and kicking his opponent from a rival gang, the rapper Bubba Sparxxx. Around them, a ring of men illuminated by a bonfire cheer on the fight.

"I'm going to hit somebody so hard," Yamin says. "That's what you get for trying to come after me."

Blood flies in all directions as the two characters beat each other. Across the room, Minnie's Lambchop stuffed animal seems to watch.

Yamin's character finally knocks Bubba Sparxxx to the ground and stomps a boot in his face. Blood sprays up and he twitches, then lies motionless.

Yazmin looks out the window at a blue sky full of warm sunshine, coaxing the first leaves to life, and plays with the pull on the shade.

"I want to go outside," she says.

On Thursday, Yamin can't wait to tell Mitchell that he was nearly the last one to finish his reading and writing test. He was one of the first to finish on Tuesday, and she told him he could not have done a good job in so little time.

He wrote only a few sentences on Tuesday, and then quit.

"I couldn't think of no more, and Eric kept making noise and laughing," he says.

But on Thursday, he went to a separate testing room, away from Eric, and filled the whole page.

Was the reading aide, Velma Robinson, dancing with joy about that? Gallagher the librarian asks.

"No, she was praying," Yamin tells her seriously. She quickly stifles a laugh.

The following Monday, after the last test, a week's worth -- or for that matter, a school year's worth -- of tension snaps tight, then blows wide open at what is usually the day's main pressure valve: lunch.

Eric talks openly during the silent reading period, and then gives Slomberg attitude when confronted. He is sentenced to lunch detention in Slomberg's office for the rest of the week.

Usually nonchalant, even cocky, Eric is furious. Tears well up in his eyes, and he spits every word through clenched teeth.

"My mom's going to whup his ass, and if she don't, I will," he says, sitting at a desk in Slomberg's waiting area. "I'm going to break his car windows and let the air out of his tires, just a little bit."

Downstairs, Yamin's class is lining up at the cafeteria door. Yamin strains to go back into the lunchroom, back to his girlfriend's lunch table, as Marquee pulls on his sleeve.

"Yamin, she's not mad at you," Marquee says, pulling him away.

A few minutes later, the girl's face tells a different story. She is waiting with the rest of her class in the hallway, and Yamin walks past her, back to the cafeteria, to retrieve his class' milk crate full of books.

He doesn't look up at her, but she gives him a long, hard glare, her arms crossed in front of her.

As the girl and the rest of her class return to their homeroom for their 15 minutes of indoor recess -- it's the fourth grade's week to use the playground -- Tresa Green lags behind.

Just a few minutes after Eric was sent to the office, one of Tresa's classmates grabbed the last hot dog away from Tresa to save for one of his friends.

Tresa threw her lunch on the cafeteria floor, and then, sobbing, was forced to wipe up the mess in front of all her classmates.

She is still in tears as she climbs the steps to Pope's classroom, thinking about the insult, and thinking about having lost her prized safety patrol belt as punishment.

"I want to go home, I don't want to stay here," she wails, pausing on the steps. "I don't care if I get suspended. I don't care."

She trudges to class and takes a seat anyway. Nearby, Yamin's girlfriend continues to fume, something about Yamin giving Marquee her telephone number.

"I just don't believe he'd do something that stupid," says one of her friends.

"Yamin is gone," the girl says.


— Amy McConnell Schaarsmith
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


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