Today, I proctored the last half of the ACT with another colleague. It was my colleague and I and nineteen juniors alone together in a room for two hours, and they had already been tested for two hours before that.
In those two hours I witnessed a boy chew through the strings of his hoodie, another repeatedly grated his arm along the side of his desk, several pulled and twirled their hair without stopping, all watched the clock with anxiety, shoulders bunched up around their ears and legs bouncing nervously.
If that’s not a physical reaction to stress, I just don’t know what is.
And then, finally, when it came to the science portion of the test – the test that determines whether or not they will graduate high school and which college they will be able to attend – one student simply closed his test booklet and laid his head on his desk.
He laid his head on his desk. After nearly three hours of testing, this student simply laid his head on his desk and did not mark a single answer, right or wrong, for one-quarter of the ACT.
We spoke to him quietly, but he declined to continue with the exam. Can I blame him? No, not really. Am I sad for him? Yes. The ACT is the penultimate exam in our state; the one that determines whether you get your high school diploma, whether you get into the college of your choice – heck, whether you get into your college at all. It’s the kind of test that the government wants to use to determine whether or not a teacher is effective at his or her job. And he laid his head on his desk and my colleague, our district’s TEACHER OF THE YEAR, could not convince him to pick up his pencil.
ACT exam readers, and ultimately our government, will make all kinds of decisions about this student and his teachers from this one exam and regardless of the reasons why, they’ll see it as an inability to handle the material. They’ll see a student who can’t keep up. A student who’s not “at-level” in science or math. They’ll see a teacher who’s ineffective.
What they won’t see are the countless hours the students put in to using knowledge gained in physics and math to actually construct a functioning remote-control vehicle. They won’t see physics students having fun designing (and sometimes failing at designing) boomerangs. They won’t see biology students testing our local pond water for bacteria and safety. They won’t see chemistry students taking that water and distilling it to make it drinkable. They won’t see forensics students analyzing a crime scene, or English students arguing over the ethical questions in To Kill a Mockingbird or writing their own fiction and creating their own worlds. They won’t see skill. They won’t see knowledge. They won’t see growth.
They’ll see empty bubbles, a lost student, and they’ll shake their heads at the obviously ineffective teachers that lead him to lay his head on his desk and give up.
And then they’ll design their next multiple-choice assessment for next year.