Tag Archives: Southwest High School

Minneapolis Protester to School Board Members: “You are Trash”

August 9, 2017

Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent, Ed Graff, reportedly had to be escorted to his car by in-house security officers late on August 8, at the tail end of a long and loudly contentious school board meeting.

The regularly scheduled meeting included the board’s vote on a new contract between the district and the Minneapolis police, worth over $1 million. The three-year contract, which the board approved 8-1, will pay for fourteen school resource officers, or SROs, to work in Minneapolis, mainly at the high school level. North Minneapolis board member, Kerry Jo Felder, voted against the contract, citing concerns over how district resources are being distributed to support the most marginalized students. 

Image result for ed graff

Ed Graff

Felder also pushed to have the board vote on the contract right after the public comment period ended. This prompted lengthy discussion among board members, who seemed taxed not only by the anti-SRO crowd evident in the room, but also by attempts to hammer out what, exactly, they would be agreeing to by entering into a new contract with the Minneapolis police. Board members Nelson Inz and Ira Jourdain, for example, sought clarity around the depth of training the officers (and any potential substitutes) would receive, as well as who would be in charge of the SROs (the schools or the police department?). 

Eventually, after two recesses, the board voted for a modified contract, calling for fourteen SROs, rather than the current sixteen. Other reforms, such as “soft” uniforms and a commitment to monthly progress reports were discussed and agreed to. Most significantly, the board–mostly at the insistence of Felder, Inz and student board member, Gabriel Spinks–pushed Superintendent Graff to further explore alternatives to SROs.

“Can we have a team that researches alternatives?” Spinks asked, before offering up what seemed like conflicted feelings on SROs. On the one hand, Spinks acknowledged, many students report feeling intimidated by the presence of SROs, who have historically worn a full police officer’s uniform, gun included. On the other hand, he said, eliminating these officers from the Minneapolis schools might increase tension “between minorities and the police.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, board member Don Samuels elicited groans from the audience when he spoke of police officers as knowing “testosterone” and “teenage boys.” He also spoke emotionally about his time as a city council member, when he says members of the local Hmong community approached him about the bullying they were experiencing in Minneapolis parks and schools. This experience, combined with knowledge that Minneapolis principals apparently overwhelmingly support SROs, were factors in Samuels’ stated support for the continued use of such “resource” officers. 

In this way, the meeting’s conversation among board members, the public and district administrators seemed fruitful. What are our values, many seemed to ask, and how can we best use our limited resources? What does it mean to have SROs in our schools, in light of the long-acknowledged school to prison pipeline? What would happen if the board voted the contract down, essentially ending the district’s use of SROs? Is there a replacement plan in place, primarily for the district’s high schools? Police would still be in our schools, someone pointed out, because school leaders would be pressed to call 911 in a crisis. 

This back and forth was repeatedly drowned out, however, by a group of people in the audience who are vehemently opposed to SROs. The protesters described themselves as being affiliated with both the Black Liberation Project and a new group called “Stand Up.” Some faces were familiar–such as Tiffini Flynn Forslund, a frequent advocate for education reform who is currently running for a seat on the Minneapolis city council. The protests were matched with a petition, signed by 74 northside residents, who represent five Minneapolis schools and are in favor of SROs. 

As the meeting progressed, some members of the protest group grew increasingly confrontational, lobbing threats at board members that they would soon be “voted out,” and accusing them of not caring about Black students. Finally, after the SRO vote was taken, one woman strode to the front of the dias where board members sit. Most of the board had left already, as the meeting was being moved due to continued interruptions, so only citywide representatives Kim Ellison and Rebecca Gagnon remained.

“You are trash. I hope you know that,” the woman told Ellison and Gagnon. 

With that, the meeting’s live video stream was cut off, and the meeting reconvened on the fifth floor of the Davis center. Few, if any, media representatives followed the meeting upstairs, as I understand it (I was watching the video stream at home), and so no one realized that the disruptions continued–to the point where Superintendent Graff had to be escorted to his car. 

Can Graff be held accountable for the sins of the past, when restorative justice initiatives were promised by district leadership but never really “implemented with fidelity”? (Look to former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s legacy for evidence of this.) Last night, Graff seemed eager to move headlong into embracing SROs (after a lengthy community engagement process, which reportedly resulted in broad support for their continued presence) while also promising to bring “integrity” and “intentionality” to their presence in the schools. Graff is a known proponent of “social-emotional learning,” and spoke about wanting to assess the “climate and culture” of each district school.

This ties into another key issue that members of the public raised at the meeting: the fate of Southwest High School administrator, Brian Nutter. Nutter has been reassigned to Davis Center headquarters as part of an administrative shake up at Southwest, reportedly due to an Office of Civil Rights complaint that was filed by a previous administrator. That complaint is said to focus on allegations of racial bias in the school’s “climate and culture,” as Graff might say.

At last night’s meeting, Nutter’s wife, Jada, spoke up on his behalf, explaining that he was away fulfilling his duties as a member of the Minnesota Army National Guard. Nutter said that she and her husband met while both were students at Minneapolis’s Roosevelt High School, and that they were “humbled and grateful” for the support they’ve received from the public, since Brian’s removal from Southwest was announced. This turn of events was “surprising” for Brian, his wife told the board, and came with “no community engagement,” leaving the school with “three unfulfilled administrative posts.”

If this is true–that no one from the Southwest community was involved in the decision to remove Nutter–than it would seem to fly in the face of an assertion Graff made at the August 8 board meeting. When the board’s discussion of SROs included talks of whether or not they should be in the schools at all, Graff had this to say (bold type added for emphasis):

I’m not focused on removals. I’m focused on listening to concerns. My goal is not to reduce SROs. My goal is to listen to concerns, around students not feeling safe, connected. I’d like to spend our energy in those areas. That’s the issue for me. Removing someone from the environment doesn’t address the climate. 

Perhaps the situation at Southwest necessitated Nutter’s removal without any community engagement or a “listening of concerns.” If so, no one affiliated with Southwest High School seems to know what this is (including Nutter and his wife, apparently). If there is no clear explanation for why Nutter needed to go, leaving Southwest in a precarious position just weeks before the school year starts, then this is the kind of red flag Graff will most likely need to avoid on his way to building trust and confidence with district staff and families.

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Minneapolis Southwest High School Investigation Leads to Administrative Shake Up

August 2, 2017

“We look forward to appointing these new assistant principals as quickly as possible.”

With that, Minneapolis Public Schools administrator, Cecillia Saddler, confirmed rumors swirling through the district’s Southwest High School community: when school starts up again in August, the school will be without three of its four administrators. In an email sent to parents and staff on August 1, Saddler informed them that assistant principals Sue Mortensen and Brian Nutter are “leaving the Southwest community.” 

This notice comes on the heels of the surprise July 28 announcement that Southwest’s longtime (and high profile) principal, Bill Smith, is retiring–a year earlier than most people expected. Mortensen, according to Saddler’s email, is also retiring while Nutter–a young, Roosevelt High School graduate–has been moved to an administrative role in the district’s Davis Center headquarters. 

Bill Smith in his Southwest office

This news sent shock waves through the community, leaving parents and staff to wonder what has caused all three of these administrators to suddenly exit the school. Only Tara Fitzgerald, an assistant principal new to both Southwest and the administrative tasks of a large high school, will be returning to the school this fall. Saddler’s email gives no indication what, if anything, has caused Smith and Mortensen to suddenly retire, and Nutter to be moved elsewhere.

It is known, however, that an internal investigation has taken place at the school, although MPS officials have yet to share this information with the community. It is believed that the investigation began in 2015, before current superintendent, Ed Graff, took the helm. The fallout from the investigation appears to have included this last-minute administrative shake up at Southwest, a high school that consistently ranks high for both academics and community support.

On July 31, Southwest staff and parents gathered for an impromptu meeting to discuss the loss of the school’s administrative team. Among the concerns outlined by supporters was the level of upheaval this is expected to cause for the school and its students, as the August 28 start date rises on the calendar. Letting go of Smith and Mortensen seemed inevitable for those gathered, yet a desire to bring Nutter back to the school was expressed. He had been given the key tasks of managing both the school’s budget (which is buoyed by a private school-like foundation, in the face of shrinking district dollars) and schedules. And he has been instrumental, some said, in building relationships with students.

The fact that Nutter was responsible for these fundamental aspects of running a large high school led many to believe that he was being tapped to take over for Smith upon his eventual retirement. Why, then, is he being moved from the school?

Anyone looking for answers in Saddler’s email will be left wanting. Also, parents and staff seeking protection from district decision-making via the school’s “autonomous,” Community Partnership School status have thus far been disappointed. One parent assumed that the school, thanks to its carefully crafted, independent “by-laws,” would be able to now choose its own administrative team.

Not so fast, she was told. Those Community Partnership School by-laws are not valid unless they’ve been ratified by the district, and they haven’t. The Community Partnership School ballyhoo appears to have been a flash in the pan, anyway, as many expected. It was a project of previous interim Superintendent Michael Goar and former teachers union boss, Lynn Nordgren. Both are gone, and the “self-governed” Community Partnership School agreement they put in place just a few years ago–selling it as the solution to the achievement gap, of course–is on its way out. (SeeAll That Glitters: Top Down Change in MPS.“)

Saddler’s email does make it clear, however, that the community will be invited to help select replacement assistant principals in the next few weeks, although any final hiring decisions will remain in Superintendent Graff’s hands. Whether or not the reappointment of Brian Nutter is possible remains to be seen.

Southwest consistently ranks as one of Minnesota’s most successful high schools, based on its relatively high four-year graduation rates (hovering at or above the 80 percent mark for most student groups), its strong IB program and the amount of high level course offerings available. The school is whiter and wealthier than any other Minneapolis public high school (just over fifty percent of students are white), and sits in one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods. Still, it draws students from across the city and remains a school of choice for many–as evidenced by the looming, suburban style expansion the school recently underwent. (A contentious expansion at that!)

Smith is known throughout the district for being a non-stop booster of the school and is famous for showing up at countless events dressed in the school’s purple and white colors. He has an inside baseball reputation for being a tough administrator who has successfully stood between the district and the school for years (my 2014 interview with him regarding Focused Instruction, another short-lived district initiative, was telling). 

The IB approach tends to be more application, or outcome focused, where Focused Instruction is more of a skill set that promotes a right or wrong answer. Both methods are standards-based, but those of us who practice IB believe it is a holistic approach to living and learning. IB practitioners are interested in self-mindedness and collaboration.

–Bill Smith on his preference for the IB method

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It’s Testing Season. Ethics Lesson, Anyone?

March 1, 2017

With Betsy DeVos in the background, whitewashing segregation and the Jim Crow era, the annual standardized testing season is here, ready to do its part to keep our schools separate and unequal. 

How’s that? Consider two local lessons in how the testing regime is propped up in our public schools on some pretty shaky ethics.

First, parents in the Becker, Minnesota school district recently received a jaw-dropping letter in their kids’ backpacks. The letter announced that the district would shortly be “adjusting (its) academic schedule,” by dropping–temporarily!–science and social studies classes in favor of an extra “Power Hour” of math and reading for each kid.

“Grade level teachers will work during this time to teach skills in the area of reading and math at your child’s instructional level,” the letter states, before assuring parents that district staff are “committed to working together to best meet the needs of all of our kids.”

Hmm. What theory of education or child development would suggest that the best needs of all kids would involve doubling down on math and reading test prep, to gin up scores on outsourced standardized tests made by for-profit corporations?

Here is the letter that was sent home:

Becker is a majority white, middle class, exurban district. Research shows that students in districts such as this often rake in the highest scores on standardized tests, and state education data for Becker backs this up. In 2015-2016, the Becker schools “surpassed the state average in every grade level for every test,” crowed a statement on the district’s website. What’s more, “most grade levels improved the number of students proficient in comparison to last year.” (That means they achieved “growth,” but don’t ask DeVos to explain any of this.)

But at what price? Replacing science and social studies with a super, extra fun Power Hour of reading and math does not seem like an ethical way to ensure dominance on top of the standardized test heap.

Parents in the Becker schools didn’t like it, either. A source tells me that as soon as the Power Hour letter hit home, parents loudly informed the district that they did not approve of their kids being given concentrated doses of test prep. In response, the district reinstated science and social studies (even though data showed there “would be a benefit to incorporating a ‘Power Hour’ of intensive instruction to our day”), and sent the following chagrined letter home:


I don’t know the opt out rates in Becker–the data does not appear to be easily available–but in Minneapolis and the surrounding suburbs, a growing number of students are choosing not to take the annual MCA tests. This has been building for years, especially for high school students who are–surprisingly!–savvy enough to realize that the MCA tests are of little consequence to their lives and their futures. MCA test scores are not required for graduation, nor are they part of college admission decisions. In other words, they don’t really matter.

And that’s partly because everything else matters so much. In 2015, I interviewed a handful of students from Southwest High School about their decision to blow off the MCAs, and their answers were very revealing:

As we talked, one thing was very clear: the MCA test is the least of these students’ worries. They are the most tested generation ever, but that’s just the tip of the rigorous homework/grades/college prep iceberg that’s always straight ahead.

Here’s the ethics connection. In a February message sent to teachers at Minneapolis’ Southwest High School, the school’s testing coordinator informed them that the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) had recently added “encouraging parents or students to refuse the test” to its list of “unethical” test administration practices. This is the email sent to Southwest teachers:

Hello All,

The MCA testing window opens March 6th (overlapping with ACCESS, ACT & Make-up ACT administration) through May 5th.

Additional information will be provided in the next week or so with specifics on student testing dates, locations, proctor assignments, and other ways we can support each other in this effort.

To whet your appetite for that additional information, below are a few points regarding Parent Refusal Forms picked up from yesterday’s training session at The District.

  • MDE has added encouraging Opt Outs to the list of unethical practices in test administration.
  • Schools are expected to have a 95% participation rate to qualify for MMR funds.
  • To underscore the point, REA sent me the following message (highlights, theirs): 

    Page 40 of (MDE) procedures manual. 

The testing coordinator acknowledges that this message is being sent to Southwest teachers because “in the past SW has had a lot of opt outs.” And that must be stopped by threatening to withhold funds, apparently.

It is clear that we have built a whole industry around testing, as our schools have become more racially and economically segregated–partly because test scores are made public, allowing parents to “opt out” of schools with low test scores. And who is most likely to attend a school with low test scores? In Minnesota, like most other places, it is marginalized students of color living in underserved communities.

The more we double down on trying to force students and teachers to comply with standardized testing, the more, it seems, we avoid difficult conversations about ethical concerns around segregation and the unequal (current and historic) allocation of resources, not to mention the fallacy of reducing educational achievement to multiple choice tests. 

Ceresta Smith is a Florida-based teacher and leader in the Opt Out movement (we met a few years ago at an education justice conference). On Monday morning, after Moonlight was awkwardly awarded Best Picture at the Oscars, this is what she wrote on Facebook:

Big ups to Moonlight!!!🤗These folks came through arts magnet programs in majority Black community schools with majority Black faculties composed of great teachers! Big up to the arts!!! Down with culturally biased worthless testing! Those tests do not make award winning art and artists!!! The teachers and students just put Miami in the big league for talent for writing, acting, and sharing truth about growing up poor and gay! Wow, big task for schools, Miami Northwestern High and Norland Middle, which a fraudulent grading system likes to label as less than.

In our questionably ethical pursuit of test scores, silence, secrecy and compliance, are we missing key conversations about what students, parents, teachers actually want from our schools?

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!


Dysfunction Junction: Innovation in the Minneapolis Schools

April 13, 2016

Last night, two new Minneapolis schools—Southwest High School and the downtown FAIR School–became district-sponsored Community Partnership Schools (CPS), after winning approval from the school board. At last! Becoming a CPS site means these two schools can operate as “innovative, site-based educational models that utilize increased autonomy, accountability and partnerships to meet the unique needs of their school communities and accelerate student achievement.” according to MPS’s website.

But…both Southwest and FAIR already are, or claim to be, built around “innovative, site-based educational models.” Southwest has been an IB school since I was a student there, in the dark ages of the 20th century, and FAIR’s website describes the school this way: 

The FAIR School is the result of imaginative educational conception, inventive curriculum planning, and innovative architectural design.

So why would these two already innovative schools want–or need–to also become CPS sites? Besides the half-promise that Community Partnership Schools will be allowed “charter-like freedom” in hiring and firing decisions (an idea that seemed to be dispelled at last night’s school board meeting), what is the benefit?

Let’s admit it: the Minneapolis Public Schools is full of mixed messages. On the one hand, the district pays for a fancy Office of New Schools, where lucky teachers and parents got to take a grant-funded trip to Los Angeles (in March, no less!) to see what innovative, creative schools look like up close (maybe they had to go to L.A. because the Office of New Schools has tried and failed to adequately implement “innovative” schools here already). If they liked what they saw–and who wouldn’t, when you’re going to LA on someone else’s dime–they could come back and “replicate” the innovation in their own Minneapolis school, as long as the school agreed to become a Community Partnership School.

But, on the other hand, many Minneapolis schools are already being given beautiful levels of autonomy, without having to become a CPS site, or taking a trip to LA. Check this video out, from the newly reopened, redesigned Webster Elementary School, in northeast Minneapolis:

From the video, it sounds like principal Ginger Davis Kranz simply had a great idea: “let’s build community at our school through family-style dining,” and was allowed to…try it, without having to become a CPS site. Genius. (And probably part of a comprehensive effort to attract and retain organized downtown Minneapolis families, who tend to be whiter and wealthier than most.)

So, why can’t every school in Minneapolis do this? Why can’t principals, teachers and staff come up with ideas on their own, and try them out? Why are some schools in Minneapolis granted “autonomy”–as they should be–while others struggle under mangled mandates that depress spirits (and keep test scores and morale low, undoubtedly)?

Why does Minneapolis promote “focused instruction” out of one side of the Davis Center, while simultaneously fawning over the idea that empowered, innovative schools are the key to success? Focused instruction, if you will recall, is MPS’s awkwardly implemented, standardized approach to “transforming educational outcomes” by putting test scores and standards first, and then creating instructional strategies that “align” with those tests and standards.


Click to enlarge

Even with focused instruction, MPS understands that not all of its schools are the same. Here is a picture from the district’s internal website, advising school staff to find which type of school they work in, and then go from there:

Presumably, then, innovation, school choice and autonomy already exist in the district. If magnet schools–which Minneapolis has had since the 1970’s–are not already the “unit of change,” then why aren’t they? If they have not already been granted the “autonomy” to do their own thing, according to the professional judgment of school staff and the input of families, then why would becoming a CPS site change this? What makes CPS a guaranteed approach, while magnet status does not? 

And Webster Elementary is neither a magnet school nor a CPS site. It just sounds like a forward-thinking, well designed rebuilt public school that has been encouraged to lead with developmentally appropriate, professionally conceived strategies. 

Why can’t all Minneapolis schools be allowed to operate like this? Why is focused instruction a “non-negotiable” for some sites, as former superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said in 2013, while other schools are encouraged to become dream-driven, flexibly arranged sites?

It’s hard to see how CPS sites will eradicate decades of uneven leadership, mishandled initiatives and unequal levels of trust, in terms of who is allowed to act innovatively, and who is not, and at what cost. But I can’t blame FAIR and Southwest for trying.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!


School to Students: Shoot for the stars, but don’t expect to get there

By Sarah Lahm

Testing, from the inside out: I recently sat down with five Minneapolis Southwest High School students to find out why they–along with over 500 of their classmates–had chosen to opt out of the annual, standardized MCA test. I assumed, like another Minneapolis education writer has, that these students were opting out only because their evaluation-fearing teachers told them to. What I found out instead, by actually talking to them, was much more interesting and much more uncomfortable. 

If I had to boil my conversation with these five students down to one sentence, it would be this: It’s not the MCAs, stupid; it’s everything else. 

Just Kids

Just kids

The students I spoke with–Makenna Kirkeby, and her friends James, Emma, Harrison, and Will–are all juniors at Southwest High School, which is consistently ranked, by the people who love to rank things, as a top performing high school. And they are all top performers, or striving to be. 

And that is the problem. They are not anxious about the MCA test; they don’t have time for it. If they miss class time to take a standardized test, then, they told me, they would have to somehow find time to make up the class work they had missed.

And they don’t have time–that much is clear. Here is a snapshot of my conversation with them, which took place on a weekend afternoon, as they sat around doing homework. My questions/prompts are in bold; their responses are the bullet points that follow:

Tell me about the MCA test. 

  • The MCA test is really a low priority at our school. It’s not hyped at all; there’s no test prep for it, not like there was in middle school. 
  • The tests we care about are the ACT and the SAT because that’s how we get in to college. The MCA test doesn’t mean anything. It’s not a graduation requirement, it’s not about getting in to college.
  • We don’t learn anything from the MCAs.
  • Honestly, a lot of students just click through it, to get it done. Some students have even had races to see who could finish the test first; I think the record is one minute and forty-five seconds.
  • Yeah, some students have used it as an excuse to get out of class, because it’s not a timed test, so they’ll just sit there in front of the screen, getting out of class.

Dumb question time: So, why are there so many kids opting out of the MCA test this year?

  • Because we found out we could from our teachers, and the school’s “test guy,” who comes around to round people up to take the test.
  • As soon as we found out, we were like, “Great. Where do we sign?” 
  • Also, we’re supposed to take the MCAs close to the end of the quarter, when we have finals. It’s like sliding another test in, right when things are really stressful in our classes. That’s why.

As we talked, one thing was very clear: the MCA test is the least of these students’ worries. They are the most tested generation ever, but that’s just the tip of the rigorous homework/grades/college prep iceberg that’s always straight ahead.

First, the students did not seem to know what the MCA test was supposed to be for. Funding? No one was sure. 

Testing industry to Congress: Do Not Disturb Us

Then, they started to talk about their lives and what it means to be a “good” student today:

  • Testing is stressful; they make it seem like it will determine your life.
  • Being a good test taker is emphasized.
  • 11th graders want good grades, and to know the content of what they’re studying.
  • Retaining knowledge is more important to us. Homework and tests are so much stress; we’d rather be sitting in class, learning.
  • Getting a good grade is so important. That’s what we are always told.

What is the purpose of all of this?

  • There is so much pressure to get in to college, and to think about how we will pay for it.
  • We have to be well-rounded, doing everything. We work, play sports, have to have the grades, and do community service.

What is the impact of this, on your lives?

  • It is difficult to stay healthy. Mental health issues are a really big problem.
  • Our families never see us. If our families are going out to dinner or doing something fun, it’s like, “Oh well, I can’t go.” There is always so much to do.
  • We have to choose between sleep and cramming in homework.
  • I have struggled with my mental health.
  • We go to school, then go to work, then have soccer, and get home at 10 p.m. Then,  we can either sleep or do homework. And getting behind is not really an option, because It takes a lot to make up work.
  • Skipping the MCA test is a matter of prioritizing; the test just doesn’t matter.

The MCAs don’t matter, because everything else matters so much in these students’ lives. They are taking tests all the time, and described often having to miss lunch to take a test or do homework. 

  • Lunch feels really short. We have maybe 30 minutes. If we leave to get food, we have to come right back.
  • We have a lot of projects booked at the same time, like a 7 page essay, a quiz, a biology lab, Spanish–all due at the same time. 
  • We are IB students, and we take AP classes.

These students sometimes get the message that being average or getting a C is okay, but they are not convinced:

  • Teachers have a different idea about grades than we do. They will say a C is average, but for a student, it’s deadly. A ‘C’ means we’re not going to college.
  • If we get a GPA below 2.0, we can’t play sports, and a lot of good colleges won’t take a 2.0 GPA student.
  • We are expected to have high grades, jobs, and fit in volunteer hours. A 4.0 GPA is what everyone is supposed to have.

And then there are the tests that really matter to these students, because they are truly high stakes. For example, the ACT:

  • Some of us take a Saturday morning ACT prep class, which is basically a class about how to cheat on tests like the ACT because we’re told how to do the test.
  • The ACT is not about life skills and has no value, but it’s high stakes.
  • If you don’t learn test-taking strategies, you won’t do well on the ACT.
  • But, the ACT doesn’t really determine how smart you are.
  • If you are not from a family with lots of resources, to help you prepare for the test, it’s almost unfair. People who have more money can pay for tutors.
  • Kids without resources don’t get the same chances. And not everyone can do well on a timed test like the ACT.

Therefore, in light of all of this, the MCA test–which, again, doesn’t determine if students will graduate or where they will go to college, seems redundant and ridiculous.

  • The MCA test is not even statistically correct, because so many students don’t take it seriously.
  • I don’t want to be compared to other kids.
  • It’s upsetting to have a number determine who you are.
  • The tests are not about being smarter or getting smarter.
  • There is so much pressure and competition at our school, and in general. 
  • One time, my stepsister (who goes to a different high school) and I were both up doing homework until 2 or 3. Then, I went to bed, but when I got up in the morning, she was still up, doing homework. She never went to bed.

The purpose of all of this seems lost on the students, who seem to feel as though they are on a roller coaster and cannot get off:

  • I know someone who has a 3.95 GPA at our school. I think she’s ranked 49th in our class.
  • At the end of the quarter, I’m so stressed and anxious. I just shut down.
  • I have mental breakdowns at least once a month.
  • My parents ask me, “Why are you so stressed out?” But then, I also have to keep up with my room and my laundry, and that makes me more upset and stressed out.
  • Yes, you just have to know your limits, and when to take a break. 

    Are we there yet?

The general feeling the students expressed is one of feeling unsupported by the adult culture they are dependent on, aside from their families, which they each seemed to feel close to:

  • We are stressed out, overwhelmed. If we miss school, the school is so strict about it. We have to have a doctor’s note, or we are told we’re truant. 
  • No one understands. People tell us to balance our lives better, but how?

Ironically, the MCA test seems like the one test they are allowed to make up. 

  • If we miss a Chemistry test or something, we can’t make it up. But if someone misses the MCA test, they will come looking for you, and say, “Come on, come take the test.” So, we can’t make up the things that really matter.

Wait. Aren’t the MCA tests supposed to tell everyone who the good or bad teachers are? Turns out the students have some pretty clear ideas on what they consider good teaching and learning:

  • There are some teachers who understand, but we have big classes, of 30 or 40 kids, and that’s hard for teachers. They don’t get to know us. All they know are our grades or test scores, or whether or not we turned in our homework.
  • We respect teachers when there is trust and communication, and when a class seems interactive. 
  • We like the teachers who remember what it was like to be in school. 
  • We like it when we’re more than a test score, and more than a list of things that need to get done.
  • Some teachers will notice what’s going on with students, and offer individual help. This is better than when teachers have black and white rules, or show favoritism.
  • Having enough resources, or relationships, is hard. Sometimes, we don’t have enough desks.
  • We have seven classes, all with homework piled on. A lot of students don’t know their learning styles; some don’t do well with lectures.

Somehow, despite the Testocracy’s best efforts, these students have learned to think critically about their lives and the world around them:

  • There is a clear boundary between the haves and have-nots, but opportunities should be there for everyone.
  • We know bright kids without high GPAs; a high GPA doesn’t exactly equal intelligence. But we are told a high GPA equals a good future.
  • High school is getting increasingly hard. More difficult. We get the message that we’re not going anywhere unless we have all A’s. 
  • We are told to shoot for the stars, but it feels like we shouldn’t expect to get there.
  • Life is a three-step thing: High school–College–Job.
  • College costs vast amounts of money, but we don’t have time to reflect on what we want to do with our lives.
  • But, I think about it a lot. And I think, we’re only 17.
  • We have good memories, too. We’ve grown up together. We’re lucky to have the opportunities we do have. Southwest is still a good school.
  • It’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t all work out.

Yet, it is clear these kids don’t feel free to be kids. They are guilt-ridden, because enough never seems like enough.

  • I feel guilty for having fun.
  • It’s always in the back of my head…what do I have to do?
  • When I’m out with friends, I think about all I should be doing.
  • School completely shapes your life. 100%. 
  • School seems pointless. Friendship, being a good person should be more important. I mean, in 20 years, will this stuff matter?

Sure, kids, complain away. But what do you really want, then?

  • Having a job and playing sports has taught me a lot of things, like life skills and people skills. I work with senior citizens, and I’ve learned how to talk with them. That’s really important, too.
  • I’ve learned more outside of school.
  • What about a class on how to do taxes or about what a mortgage is? I want to know how to pay my bills. 
  • I would like real-life scenarios in my classes, like how to do a job interview. Sometimes groups come in, after school, to talk about this stuff, but the students are so tired.

These students have gotten another message loud and clear: they are being sorted and ranked all the time.

  • We took the Explore and Plan tests (part of a three test package, along with the ACT). It was ok, but it doesn’t go into depth, and people always try to manipulate it. 
  • They always show us charts about which jobs make the most money. People tried to get those jobs, like “Business Analyst,” as their future career.
  • But, we can’t think of job possibilities. Being asked to be creative is a foreign concept. If someone’s interested in world history, it’s like, “What job goes with that?” 
  • We have been geared to not be creative. There is no room, no time, to explore what you’re interested in.
  • I have taken 3 years of hard IB classes, and just last week, I asked my teacher: What is IB? I don’t know. I’m just doing it because it looks good.
  • I feel like we’ve been conditioned to be like this. 
  • I’ve learned, “How can I bullshit my way through this?”

Finally, I asked if they ever studied things like how to get a handle on climate change. They said, bluntly, “We don’t have time to solve problems.”

The MCA test is really a blip of nothingness to these students, and being allowed to skip it, they said, felt like a little taste of freedom in an otherwise very controlled life.