By Diane Landis
On the western edge of the San Joachin Valley lies the town of Cantua Creek. Its residents are Mexican farm laborers who live in camps. Their children are brought by bus to Cantua Creek Elementary School.
Teaching second grade at Cantua Elementary was my first teaching job. I had recently moved to Southern California and didn’t speak Spanish, but the kids didn’t mind. I gave and got lots of smiles and hugs. I complimented them on their printing skills and read many stories to them. Usually they didn’t understand the story, but they listened politely. Their parents wanted them to learn how to speak, read, and write English so they could help their parents handle business at the bank and other places.
The children spoke Spanish outside of school. None could read English beyond a beginning level. They loved recess when they could chatter in Spanish with their friends.
Near the end of the school year, the state-mandated Reading Comprehension Test reared its ugly head. The results for each school were rated and published, pitting district against district. The District Superintendents were a wreck. They hoped for the best because districts that performed poorly were in danger of being “taken over by the state” – a great embarrassment for the Superintendent. Needless to say, being “taken over by the state” did not result in any difference in the test scores the following year.
Many students in California schools are of Mexican heritage but are second or third generation Americans. Their English language skills are far superior to those of my second graders who had recently arrived in the US. This was not taken into consideration – all test answers were judged by the same criteria. No one was to question why.
A week before the Reading Comprehension Test was to be given, a newly-appointed official from the Superintendent’s office (who just happened to be the Superintendent’s daughter) notified our Principal that all the teachers had to attend an afternoon meeting.
As the teachers were settling in around the table, she glared at us from behind her heavy black eyeliner. Her long, red fingernails held up a report for us to see. “Your school,” she informed us sternly, “performed very poorly on last year’s Reading Test. The students HAVE to do better this year!”
That our students performed poorly was old news to the veteran teachers at the table. Experience had taught them that learning a second language takes years of hard work. The Superintendent’s daughter wasn’t concerned with that. She continued in her urgent tone: “The Superintendent and I are VERY concerned! The district could be in danger of losing its authority! The students HAVE to do better this year!”
I was the new teacher in the school and naively asked, “Or what?” Her hostile eyes glared at me as she grabbed her briefcase, turned on her high heels, and clicked out of the room.
A few days later, the Reading Tests arrived. The instructions informed the teacher that the test consisted of short paragraphs followed by a question with four answer choices. The students had to color in a small circle to indicate their answer choice. The instructions concluded with, “UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCE IS THE TEACHER TO READ ANY PART OF THE TEST TO THE STUDENTS!”
“Right-o,” I said to myself and opened a test booklet. There was no way any of my students could read the test. But they HAD to take the test. After a brief moment of reflection, I made my decision.
Smiling and sweaty, my students returned to the classroom from recess. When they were seated, I said, “Look up here. We have to do the reading test now. I’ll show you how to do it.” I held up my copy and pointed to a paragraph. “See, there are some sentences. Under the sentences are four small circles with a sentence after each circle. Do you see what I mean?” They all nodded.
“This is what you have to do. Pick one of the four small circles and color it in with your pencil. Then go on to the next four circles and color in one of them.” I demonstrated with my pencil.
“Any questions?” No questions.
For the next half hour, I watched as the children happily picked a circle and colored it in. Some of the children colored in ALL the circles!
A month later, our school received the results of the test. My students had performed as well as the second graders had the previous year!
That summer, I moved out of the San Joaquin Valley and never learned whether or not the district had been “taken over by the state.” I daresay, however, that the following spring found the Superintendent’s daughter once again telling the hard-working teachers at Cantua Elementary, “The students HAVE to do better this year!”
About the Author
Diane Landis is a retired elementary grade teacher, currently substitute teaching. Her BA from Smith College is in Education and Child Study. She has taught in public and independent schools. Diane enjoys poking fun at schools (particularly administrators). She is on Facebook.