Longform

The Next Test

Page 7 of 8

Elvis's older brother, Frankie, who is autistic, comes by -- but not before he's visited virtually everyone in the lunchroom. He hangs over tables, shakes hands, laughs, talks, moves on. Although Frankie may be the only one at Manual openly chatting up both black and Latino kids, there's little racial tension at the school, according to Elvis. "Most of the Mexicans stick to themselves; so do blacks," he says. They find common ground in sports.

Elvis's next class is IMP 2, where a substitute teacher is keeping a very loose rein on the kids. (By the end of the period, half of the students will have "excused" themselves.) So the students have plenty of time to talk about their sophomore portfolio project, known as Rites of Passage. Girls drop out of Manual when they're pregnant, one kid says; boys drop out because of the portfolios. They're just too much work, and other schools don't require them.

"The fact we have to do it is because they think we're not a good school," says Lisa Sotelo, a sophomore with a 4.0 grade point average. And that negative mindset stretches to her home. Her mother was unimpressed with her perfect report card, she says, telling her, "Your teachers don't teach you nothin'."

According to Nicotera, about a hundred high-achieving kids who live in the neighborhood go somewhere other than Manual, convinced it's not a good school. "If we had those kids, it would mean so much to the school," he says. "The curve would shift out to the right. We need to get the word out."

Elvis doesn't mind Rites of Passage: he's researching a paper on the American Indian Movement for his portfolio. But he doesn't like the defeatist attitude among his classmates -- and that includes all the talk about ditching the CSAP test, scheduled for the following week. "I don't care who walks out," he says. "I'm gonna take the test."


The students' concerns over the CSAP are shared by teachers.

At the CU symposium last fall, Nicotera told the crowd that only fifteen out of 350 incoming Manual freshmen were reading, writing and doing math at grade level. "It's difficult to compare our work at Manual with the work of teachers at GW when we start out at such a disadvantage," he pointed out.

Educators worry that CSAP both polarizes schools and paints them with too broad a brush. "We felt it was wrong," says Guinta, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which came out against the test last year. "Even now, with the categories, we feel it's unfair labeling schools. You're not looking at the same group of students, so it's not a fair assessment."

"What we have experienced in Colorado is a direct result of when you get legislators involved in quick-fix solutions that don't take into account the whole spectrum of the human condition when you're trying to educate children," adds Sharon Bailey, a former Denver School Board member.

"To put all schools in the same competition and assume they all have an equal chance at success, and to dispense rewards and punishments accordingly, is to deny reality," wrote McQuillan in his paper on post-busing Manual. "What capable student will want to attend a failing school? What teachers, besides those young and/or desperate for work, will teach there? What administrators will want to work at these schools? And what impact will the collective nature of the student population have on faculty and administrators? Some people will end up teaching in these schools, but consider the price they will pay in working with a highly segregated student population and in a school that has been publicly stigmatized."

Starting this fall, low-performing schools will have just two years to improve their CSAP scores enough to escape the "unsatisfactory" category; if they fail to do so, the state will send out a request for proposals to take over management of the failing school. "That's when the school becomes hugely destabilized," says Sutton. "That would be a huge event in the community."

Which is why the first CSAP testing day is a huge event for Manual.

Irene Meschia, Elvis's biology teacher, says her kids do well in labs but get nervous on tests. Although they know the material, something about the nature of testing -- the silence of it, perhaps, or the pressure to do well -- causes many of her students to tighten up. And there are other flaws to the testing that could affect Manual. Scores of special-education kids will be folded into the rest of the scores. And the test isn't being given in Spanish, even though over two dozen students whose scores will be counted (under state guidelines, anyone who's been in school in Colorado for three consecutive years qualifies) aren't fluent enough in English to take the test in that language.

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T.R. Witcher