Testing Lang

By Amy Gutowski

Photo:Joseph Blough

Lang was a student of mine last year, an eight-year-old with big brown eyes and a shy, quiet nature. He hated writing; putting pencil to paper was a brutal task for him. Yet he wrote, sharpened lead pressing hard onto the paper, forehead wrinkled in concentration and pain.

Lang taught our class how to say “hello” and “goodbye” in his first language, Hmong. He loved math and could spot an equivalent fraction a mile away. He would add numbers into the hundreds of thousands and stun the class.

During morning work I would often have the kids try to find as many words as they could from a larger word—like finding the word “leap” within the word “apple.” Lang would discover the word “nectar” in “concentration” and wow his fellow third graders. He spelled the word “hypothesis” in our heated classroom game of spelling hoops, which allowed him the chance to make the final, winning shot. I said a small prayer before the orange-sized nerf basketball left Lang’s hands—he so deserved to experience the glory. When the ball swished through the mini-basket, the class went wild and sprung to their feet, cheering. Lang went back to his seat, hands warm from high-fives, cheeks red from excitement, smiling.

Lang also devoured “Captain Underpants” books, checking them out weekly from the classroom library. His excitement for reading increased with each new adventure.

In March, we had to give the third-grade standardized reading test, a thick booklet brimming with multiple-choice questions and treacherous reading passages. The kids knew it was coming; we had prepared, worked in practice booklets, and perfected the art of filling in the bubbles.

But as the other kids finished their tests, my heart grew heavy. Lang still sat there, forehead wrinkled in pain. His pencil filled in perfect, lead heavy circles. He was almost finished when I noticed his bloody lip, bitten from anxiety. I told him that he did his best, and that was definitely enough.

He smiled, wiped his lip with a wet tissue and asked if he could go to music.

Months later, I sat at my desk after school reading the test scores that had just been shipped back to us. I sat in silence, lights off, while sun streamed through the window. According to the test, Lang wasn’t “advanced,” he wasn’t “proficient.” He was “basic,” which couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

How many other students and teachers have this same experience when the test scores come back? Lang and I will survive this, of course, but as the tests approach this year I wonder which of my students will find themselves explaining test scores to parents, who thought no child was going to be left behind.

*All students’ names have been changed.

Amy Gutowski (snapshots73@peoplepc.com) is a third-grade teacher at Thoreau Elementary in Milwaukee.