“Very Miss You” and Offensive Numbers

Story

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Apart from subbing, I was only able to teach one term of ESL at the community center. My creative take on grad school and brief return to Zanzibar means that I won’t be around enough to commit to teaching the Spring or Summer terms. This is bittersweet, because I’m excited for what is to come, but truly sad to leave my students.

At the end of class today, one of my students told me, “We will very, very miss you.”

Despite a tenuous grasp on adverbs, my students have noticeably improved during my time with them. When I arrived, three of my students’ go-to response to any question was laughter accompanied by a confident, “No English!” Now, one of those students tells me stories about his construction company in Nepal. The others are slowly becoming expert spellers. One of them still laughs a lot, but I don’t hear “No English” anymore.

Therefore, when my students got their results back from the CASAS reading test, I was confused. It was explained to me that all but one of my students actually performed worse than before. I was given a chart with each name, and beside each name there was a number I associated with Chicago’s winter temperatures–not with my students’ English proficiency. For a few moments, my confusion turned to anger and I felt insulted by the offensive numbers. The progress I saw should not be summarized like this.

After thinking about it for a long ride on the train, I acknowledged that my lessons focused a lot on speaking, listening, and writing. Maybe more than reading. But even so, that leaves me with the question: Why were my students tested only in reading? This still seems like a disservice to them and their well-rounded, hard work.

The reality is that most standardized tests have multiple agendas. First, there is the superficial task of evaluating students’ knowledge. Second, there is the broader task of showing progress to the funders. For a community center, this could range from a college board, to a government grant, or to private donors. For public schools, this increasingly means state and federal government. For better or for worse, when people give money they tend to want to know how the money gets used. That’s understandable. The problem, though, is how to show that. In the education world, tests are usually the solution. If scores are rising, then students are improving, and money is being spent effectively . . . right?

Honestly, I don’t know if that is right. It seems to me that if someone giving money to education truly cared about education, they would show up to class and observe. They would interview students and teachers, and they would make an attempt to understand students beyond numbers that represent a fraction of their knowledge. I do not blame my coworkers or supervisors. They do a great job with what they have. I do place some blame on the top of the hierarchy, and I ask them: “Which do you actually care about more, education or your money?”

Unfortunately, what Wu-Tang Clan said more than 20 years ago seems to be very true today:

“Cash rules everything around me.”

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