Monday, August 22, 2016

The Saga of Mrs. S: Fourth Grade

    The MSA’s (Maryland State Assessments) were given every year to Maryland 3rd-8th graders in math and language arts, with science MSA’s for the 5th-graders and the 8th-graders. They are now replaced with the PARCC’s. I had to take the MSA through my sixth-grade year.

    When I was in third grade, no one cared. They took the test. They turned it in. That was the beginning and the end of it.

    Well, not quite. Everyone who took the MSA got a special Cougar Paw. This was my elementary school’s version of the typical school currency, which consists of a piece of paper reading Thank you for being respectful, responsible, and ready to learn with a picture of the school mascot. There are usually special ones for spirit days. They can generally be traded for a lame prize like showing up briefly on the morning announcements, or just swapped for some piece of made-in-China plastic junk. In my middle school, they were called merits, but were essentially the same thing. I’ve been to four schools, and three of them had some form or another of these. The one that didn’t was a preschool.

    These special Cougar Paws were entered into a drawing, and they’d pick a couple winners. This girl from my class, Ariela, actually won one of the prizes, and got to eat ice cream at lunch with two friends of her choice.

    In front of the rest of the third grade.

    But that was the worst of it. Therefore, I had no way of knowing that in fourth grade, the school would explode into a frenzy of test-taking panic.

    Ironically, the only ones who cared were the ones not actually taking the test.

    I first met Mrs. S when I wanted to run for SGA at the beginning of fourth grade. She was the head of the SGA, along with our counselor. She seemed like a very nice teacher at the time. And then they started the test prep.

    After my third-grade year, my elementary school decided it would be excellent preparation to have two practice MSA’s every year, for every grade. I wouldn’t have minded this - I tend to enjoy school-wide testing, because it’s an enjoyable break from normal classroom schedules and usually results in a great deal of reading time. But the MSA, being so very important to the future of America’s youth, required absolute security. No books. No drawing paper. I couldn’t even bring my water bottle, because of course, that would give me the opportunity to print a copy of the test answers, dissolve them in my water bottle, then, with the discreet addition of a top-secret chemical, magically implant the knowledge in my brain as I drank the water.

    These new rules changed everything. No longer were the tests a pleasant vacation from the boring schedule, they were five hours a day, two to four days, and now three times a year instead of just one, of boring testing time. What merit was there to filling out these stupid bubbles? I wondered. I used to pity those poor teachers who could only comprehend this bizarre method of determining our intelligence. Now I loathed them. There was no enjoyment whatsoever, I concluded, in taking thirty-five minutes to answer these useless questions if we had to sit and check our answers for the other eighty-five. So why would the teachers make us suffer through this any more than necessary?

    While I was seething about this offense, they were still scheming. And apparently, their master plan was to make us suffer through a month (if I remember correctly) of group test prep.

    For fourth and fifth grade, I was in a split-level class, with both fourth-graders and fifth-graders. And there on our schedule, with all the cute little illustrated strips of plastic reading Lunch and Math and Dismissal, were the big ugly new strips with MSA READING and MSA MATH in red and blue letters. From 11:45 am to 12:30 pm, I stayed with the rest of the fourth-graders in my class at a separate classroom and plowed (or rather inched) through a packet of reading comprehension or math problems.

    Nearly every day.

    Honestly, I cannot remember if it replaced our specials (art, music, PE, etc). It might have. I know we had them the same time we took our specials, but they might have just moved them to the  earlier mornings. But I hated it. Every day, I saw those new strips of plastic polluting my cheerful little kid-world schedule. And I had to actually suffer through this for forty-five minutes a day.

    For those of you who have read the Origami Yoda books, this was what FunTime was like. I swear, revisiting my elementary school calls up memories of McQuarrie. (For those of you who haven’t read the Origami Yoda books, you should, especially if you have kids. They may look lame at first glance, but they depict middle school very well and are quite entertaining. The ones with the test prep insanity are The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett and Princess Labelmaker to the Rescue. Tom Angleberger, kids’ section of most public libraries. Trust me. Check one out.)

    First, Mrs. S would read the passage. Slowly. And we all had to follow along as she read. Slowly. And then we had to follow along some more as she worked through each and every question.


    “‘What was the most likely reason Joey did this? Do you think it’s A, he was trying to make a good impression on Mr. Smith, B, he didn’t like Fifi, C, he believes dogs should be treated like people, or D, he was lazy?’” Long pause. “What do you think? Mary?”

    “Um, C?”

    “C, he believes dogs should be treated like people? Hmm, I don’t know…let’s go back and reread this part of the text together.” [Long, slow reading of two paragraphs of text.] “So, do you think it’s C, or could it maybe be something else?” Another pause. “Johnny? Do you think the correct answer is C?”


    “What is it?”

    “I don’t know.”

    “Well, let’s look at this part again: ‘Joey was worried Fifi might make a mess on Mr. Smith’s lawn, and then he might be blamed for it.’” Yet another pause while I plaintively wonder what I did in my past life that was so much worse than murder that this was the hell I was sent to for it. “So what do you think, Johnny?”


    “Yes, it’s A. Can you tell me why it’s A, Johnny?”

    “Um…because he doesn’t want to get in trouble if Fifi poops on Mr. Smith’s lawn?”

    “Yes. He didn’t want Mr. Smith’s lawn to be ruined. Does everyone understand?” Nodding. Chorus of halfhearted yeses. “Brittany? Do you understand?”


    “Yes? You understand why it’s A?”


    “Okay. Now let’s look together at the next question. Wait - has everyone circled A?” Glances at our test papers. “Eowyn, we haven’t gotten there yet. The rest of us are still on page three.”

    I sullenly turn back six pages.

    “Okay. ‘Why did Mr. Smith give Joey twenty more dollars than he asked for?’”

    I would always work through the packet myself. I would read the excerpts about ten times faster than Mrs. S, read the questions, circle the answers right then and there, and move on. It would take me ten minutes, at most, to complete the packet. The way Mrs. S taught it, it took all forty-five excruciating minutes, and we usually didn't even finish in those forty-five.

    One time, I managed to finish the packet under her radar. She would always notice that I had gotten ahead and tell me I had to follow along with everybody else, so I would wait until her attention drifted away to stealthily turn back to where I was and continue the test. Sometimes she caught me up to three or four times per session, but what was she going to do with my continued disobedience? Send me to the office? I figured any punishment she would devise would probably end up merciful in comparison to staying there, so what did I have to lose? At this point, there were still about fifteen minutes left before our souls would be released, so I reread one of the less uninteresting passages to pass the time. At one point, I absently looked up to discover that the table was quiet.

    “What do you think?” Mrs. S asked, as if it was the second time she was asking it. I glanced down at my paper, hoping she wouldn’t notice my silent rebellion.

    “Let’s take another look at the story,” she said when there was no response. As she began to re-reread whatever loathsome passage we were being questioned on now, I relaxed and tuned back in to the story. I was reading through it to try to find each letter of the alphabet in turn, from A to Z, which is a trick I still use today to save my mind from the boredom when teachers make me follow along while someone’s reading aloud. (Actually, I’ve developed a new version, in which you skip over any letter that has a Scrabble value of 8 or higher - makes it a lot easier - but that doesn’t matter.)

    It didn’t occur to me until later that maybe she had been asking me the question, whatever the heck it was, and had mistaken my silence for lack of understanding, and I, engrossed in my one-page story, simply hadn’t heard.

    To this day, I wonder if she had been asking me. It doesn’t really matter any more, but I still wonder.

    Finally, FINALLY, the last day of the MSA prep came, and I was silently rejoicing. Sure, the first forty of the forty-five minutes would be the typical torture, but it was the last day. It felt like the Friday of the longest week ever.

    I endured the pain. I ignored the raw screaming of my soul as it slowly suffered. I was getting out of this hell, darn it, and that was cause enough for celebration.

    Finally, Mrs. S told us she had a special treat for us for doing so well.

    Food, I thought grudgingly. The teachers at my elementary school distributed nothing but food and Cougar Paws. And I was sensitive to food coloring - apparently everyone was, but I was the only one with a mother who knew about it, and thus wasn’t supposed to eat anything with artificial colors, aka school-delivered anything. I had to politely decline, and the teachers would act surprised and require an explanation anew, and then I’d have to sit there pretending I didn’t care while everyone else enjoyed cupcakes or doughnuts or lollipops or whatever.

    But it wasn’t food, much to my surprise. “You all get special new pencils you can use on the MSA,” she told us. I took mine and looked at it. I had plenty of pencils, and they gave us shiny new #2 pencils for the test each time we took it. But whatever.

    “It has a poem on the side to help you if you get nervous,” she continued.

    Nervous? Why do teachers always think we’re nervous? In elementary school, everyone’s too young to know they’re supposed to care about the MSA, and the results don’t even affect them in any way they can see. The teachers are the only ones who care.

    “Let’s read it. It says, ‘Take a deep breath, go with the flow, just do your best, and show what you know.’”

    I rolled my eyes to myself. Why, I wondered, did they bother? Why did they bother trying  to assure us the test was something basic and insignificant, something students could pass just fine by themselves and didn’t need to worry about, when they were the ones making a big deal about it? If anyone was actually nervous about the test, it would be because of all the emphasis they placed on it. Was it something we needed all these test-taking strategies and hours upon hours of mind-killing practice to pass, or something simple and meaningless? What did they want to portray the wretched thing as?

    “And then, because you guys are such smart cookies…” she continued, smiling broadly.

    I knew it was too good to be true.

    “I brought something else!” She took out a bin of M&M cookies.

    I wilted.

    While everyone else eagerly nibbled their cookies, I read the ingredients list on the bottom of the box in a hope even I knew was futile. M&Ms are artificially colored.

    So there I sat sullenly and watched everyone else eat their cookies. But I consoled myself with the reminder that this particular diabolical scheme was over and done with for the whole year, which was sweeter than any cookie.

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