Exit tests

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I honestly don’t know if I believe in exit tests. A former teaching assistant of mine from Honduras does believe in these tests. He grew up in a system where you passed the third grade test if you wanted to go to the next grade. You proved you were ready for fourth grade or you repeated the year.

My own opening argument for exit tests is a simple one. I’ll call him Jaime. This year, Jaime pops around and into my classroom regularly. He’s supposed to be in his seventh grade classroom, since he failed seventh grade. I’m pretty sure he’s failed other grades, too. If not, he started school late or something. Because Jaime is almost big enough to be a linebacker. He has a noticeable, black mustache. When I sent an email to the administration asking them to please promote this boy, I wrote, “he’s a little like Godzilla among the tiny residents of Tokyo.”

One fragment of a conversation from right before his promotion has stayed with me: “They should put me in 8th grade,” Jaime said. “I did what they said to do. I got Cs. If they’d told me to get Bs, I’d have got Bs. I did my part.”

I looked at this big boy standing across the desk from me, asking me to help him get his verbal contract with the administration fulfilled, and I thought, “You could have gotten those Bs, too.” But we had asked for Cs and Cs were exactly what Jaime had delivered.

I like this boy. He’s another student on the list of kids I’d definitely adopt, despite the fact I know he’d drive me completely nuts. He seldom follows marching orders. He wanders the school. He skips. He ambles into my classroom and that of a special education teacher down the hall. He’s not in special education, but she helps him with his schoolwork anyway. We send him back to where he supposedly belongs. But the problem is – he doesn’t belong in those classes. He has almost nothing in common with those little seventh graders, physically, mentally or emotionally. Eighth grade will only be a little better.

Jaime is a time traveler who has fallen into the wrong time. His physical and emotional peers are in high school. Some have dropped out of high school by now. I expect Jaime to drop out of high school. I hope to be wrong, but Jaime’s not academically motivated. The factors that might keep him in school would likely be social and family factors. He hasn’t had a chance to make high school friends. At conferences, his mom grinned at me when I suggested possible future military service.

“He’s too lazy,” she said.

She’s most likely right. I was grasping for the proverbial straw at that point. Military aspirations can keep a student in school because they provide a reason to get a diploma.

Fundamentally, this “kid” is a great guy and I’d like to see him finish high school. Neither his mom nor I can think of a hook to keep him in school, however. Jaime needs to become emotionally invested in school for that to happen. His many differences from his peers make that investment unlikely.

Eduhonesty: For me, Jaime represents the perfect example for why America needs exit testing. I recognize that what I am about to say will seem contradictory: I am recommending mandatory retention as a solution after describing a problem that probably came directly from Jaime’s retentions. I’m also creating a governmental requirement of sorts at a time when I believe we desperately — and I mean desperately — need to get the government out of the classroom.

But I look at Jaime and think that exit testing might well have rescued this boy. Jaime and many students like him have the intelligence to meet clearly-set standards. If the cost of failing to meet those standards will be an obligation to repeat fourth grade, I strongly suspect many of these boys and girls will learn what they need to pass a well-crafted exit test.

Illinois requires that students pass a test on the Illinois Constitution to pass the 7th grade and a test on the U.S. Constitution to pass the 8th grade. This test naturally makes our lower students very nervous. “Will I get a second chance, Ms. T?” they ask. Then they study like they’ve never studied before. I give them study guides and index cards to make into flash cards. They make the cards. They ask each other questions. They ask me questions. In the end, they all passed last time and most passed with a comfortable margin to spare.

When we pass a student who is unready for the next grade, we create problems that ripple beyond that one student. A few years ago, during a year when my school had 18 false fire alarms and a lot of time standing in the snow, I’m not sure any student was held back. Two of my students missed the equivalent of at least one day every week and yet were promoted.

Kids talk. The following year, we had students with stories like, “I got three Fs and I passed.” The new administration put an end to the automatic pass. Students began to fail. But the stories of students passing, students who knew that by any standard measure they ought to have been held back, were already in circulation. Some kids still don’t believe their grades are necessarily linked to moving on to the next grade.

Some students will fail no matter what we do and what stories are going around. Some kids just don’t do the work. Mostly, these are kids who need more active parental involvement, but I know failing children from families whose parents are requesting regular phone calls during the evening, parents who are working constantly to make sure their child fulfills school responsibilities. Our academic failures can be Jedi Masters at evading schoolwork, blocking calls and intercepting the mail from concerned teachers.

I do think that a percentage of our students would respond to the threat of an exit test, however. Academic performance in aggregate would improve. If we ended up failing and retaining more students, maybe those students should be retained. Under the current system, there are too many 8th graders reading at a third grade level.