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High-Stakes Testing

by James Rumpel

part 1

Five plate glass windows: once they had had purpose, aesthetic and practical. Now they were boarded up against the frigid May wind that tore across the desolate, snow-covered prairie. Now they were but one thin layer, out of many, set between the bitter cold gale and the collection of children within.

Occasionally, the wind would snake its way past the plywood barrier, slithering between fiberglass insulation in a quest to push through the glass. The windows vibrated in defense. The rattling of the panes, the baying of the wind, and a tiresome hum emanating from a fluorescent light hanging low on the ceiling coalesced to create an irritating mixture of hushed noises. The vexing combination of sounds only served to magnify Michael Rawley’s frustrations.

“No, no, no!” bellowed the dismayed young teacher. Veins attempted to break through his crimson neck. “You know this. If the discriminant is negative, you will have two imaginary roots.”

“Oh, yeah,” responded the pre-teen, whose desk Rawley currently stood over. “I guess I just don’t have that good of an imagination. Get it? Come on, lighten up, Mr. Rawley.”

“You realize the test is barely a week away, don’t you?”

“Oh, I know that. We all know that. You’ve been giving us a daily countdown since the start of the year.”

Michael knew Todd was a good kid. He knew the boy was doing the best he could, really trying. Michael also knew that Todd was incredibly lonely. He sincerely missed his family. In the last ten months, he had gotten to know the boy and had grown to respect him. The same was true for every student in the class. Respect that made Michael all the more desperate to see them, each and every one of them, pass the final assessment.

Michael took a deep breath, slowing his heart rate by a minuscule increment. He straightened, standing tall, like a knight atop a castle wall. He looked down at his kingdom. A domain consisting of twenty-five mismatched desks scavenged from the abandoned schools scattered about the central Wisconsin landscape. Each worktable was home to a unique and consequential young person.

Michael surveyed the room, silently reciting each child’s name. His mentor, James, had taught him this simple relaxation method early last school year, his first as an educator. It is the children who are important, not the material or the upcoming test. Michael accepted that important axiom of education; he couldn’t forget it. His love and respect for the children were exactly what made the quickly approaching assessment so important and worrisome. If the students in this class were going to have any opportunity to thrive, to succeed, they had to score well on the exam.

“OK, let’s take a break from algebra.” Michael waited for the exaggerated cheer to subside. “Please, take out your devices and watch lesson 15D, ‘The Effects of Post-War Climate Change on Agriculture’.” The mock ovation quickly morphed into a despondent groan.

Maghi spoke up. She was the undisputed class queen. She was tall and pretty. She possessed an air of maturity, especially when compared to a majority of the other students. They were just now beginning the tortuous journey that was puberty. If Maghi had worn the right make-up and clothing, an uninformed observer would have sworn she was an adult and not a child of thirteen. “Do we have to? Those videos are so boring. Why don’t we do any of the fun activities we did at the start of the year? Can’t we do that war negotiation simulation again?”

“I wish we could, Maghi. But we have so much curriculum to cover in a painfully short time. I enjoy those types of lessons as much as you do, but they take too long. Now everyone, please cooperate and start watching the video.”

They really were good kids. It wasn’t their fault they didn’t understand the significance attached to passing the final exam. The children, begrudgingly, extracted their laptops, donned their headphones, and focused their attention on the small screens before them. Each computer was emblazoned with the slogan “Technology + Education = Hope for the Future.” That message alone explained why the school featured so much advanced gadgetry yet lacked many basic necessities.

Michael walked around the crowded room, making certain the students remained on task. The videos they watched almost daily were painfully dry and unappealing. They were, however, supplied by the National Education Directive and subliminally enhanced. Studies had proven that the hidden messages within the film improved recall by nearly seventy percent.

* * *

Having released the students back to the dorm wing for lunch, Michael hurried to the educator lounge. He steered towards the coffee dispenser. With luck, he would be able to grab the last of his daily ration. The sparsely supplied room was furnished with an oversized table, metal folding chairs, and a pair of threadbare recliners. The main attraction of the room, its Holy Grail, was a stained coffee pot. Michael marveled that the coffee machine was always on the verge of being empty. To him, the room smelled of hopelessness: a scent created by mixing equal parts of sweat, stale coffee and discouragement.

“Michael, are your kids ready?” queried Amber Penholder, another of the seventh-grade teaching group.

“I don’t know. Some are, some aren’t. I just wish they were more invested. I wish they realized what’s at stake for them.”

“And us,” added Amber. “You know the law. Can you imagine the chaos if we were to tell them that a percentage of those who score low are going to be put to death in order to ease the famine? There’d be complete hysteria.”

“I know, I know. But to watch them waste time is so frustrating. They could lose their lives by lack of effort.”

“Well, you do realize that is partially your fault. You spent all those days doing ultra-curricular lessons. You should have been prepping for the final from day one. My kids’ practice scores are all above the mean or at least within half a standard deviation. They are ready.”

Michael took a deep breath and tried to calm himself, something he found himself doing very often the last few weeks. “That’s good. I hope all goes well for them. I’ve got to get back to my room and see if I can come up with a way to help them understand Kirchhoff’s laws of electrical currents.”

Michael briskly headed to the door and gave Amber a quick wave of the hand. He hoped she understood it as a farewell gesture and not what he actually meant.

Amber’s final sentence was cut off by the slamming of the door. “They don’t need to understand it; they just need to get the questions right. That’s your pro...”

* * *

Dr. Arthur Frallic, the school administer, stood before the seventh-grade teaching team. His face displayed his usual smile, a smile that looked genuine and caring, yet somehow managed to purvey an aura of undisputable power and intimidation.

“Of the twenty schools that administered the seventh-grade final last year, we finished with the fourth best overall average. That was good, but we can do better.”

“I think my class was in the top five percent of all classes last year,” offered Amber.

Dr. Frallic ignored the interruption and continued, “Do any of you have suggestions that might help our students perform to an even higher degree?”

“We could increase the students’ rations leading up to the test. They’ll perform better if they aren’t hungry.”

“Our total supplies are running awfully tight right now. We don’t have anything to spare.”

“We could give them some of our rations,” suggested Michael.

The disapproving murmur from the other teachers made it clear to everyone present that Michael’s idea was not a popular one with the staff.

“Why don’t I let you have some time to think about other ideas. I need to go to a meeting with the six-grade teachers. Everyone try and come up with a plan that will work for your individual classes and be prepared to present your ideas at tomorrow’s staff meeting. You are dismissed.”

As the rest of the educators left the room, Michael hovered by the door. He had been trying to work up the nerve to have a specific conversation with Dr. Frallic for some time. Today had to be the day.

“Dr. Frallic, may I talk to you for a minute?” he asked.

“Sure, Michael, but not too long,” was the administrator’s response.

“I think I need to tell my students about the consequences of failing the exam.”

Dr. Frallic stopped gathering his materials and stared at Michael. After a second, he set everything back on the desk and directed Michael to sit down.

“You’re a young teacher, Michael. Maybe, you don’t fully understand how the system works. We are at a very, very difficult time in our existence. Everyone is making painful sacrifices. You understand that parents are giving up their children in the hope that everyone will have a better chance to survive this horrible famine.

“The people have accepted the culling of the population because they understand it is the fairest way and the best way to ensure our survival. Parents don’t want to know if their child passed the test or not. They want to always have the hope that their child passed and gone onto Secondary and then a worthwhile occupation.”

“I understand that, sir,” said Michael. “We all face the reality of the need to reduce the population in a humane and organized manner. But I think the students would do better if they knew what was at stake.”

“Michael, the Education Administration has decided that the fairest way to administer the test is with the students not being aware. They know the lottery exists; they just can’t know that they could be eligible. They are too young to handle that kind of pressure.”

“But they are not too young to take a test that could lead to their death?” Michael instantly regretted the tone of his voice.

Dr. Frallic flashed his enigmatic smile. “I get it. You are worried about your classes’ performance and if you are going to end up in the lottery. You need to just do your job. Every occupation has a slight percentage go into the lottery. It’s what has to be done. You know the chances of actually being selected are minimal.”

As Dr. Frallic continued, the smile disappeared and was replaced by an expression that could not be misinterpreted. “However, if you tell your students about the test consequences, you will automatically be selected. The same rules apply to you as to everyone else. Now, if you will excuse me, we both have work to do.”

After the administrator left the room, Michael remained seated. He buried his face in the palms of his hands. “It’s not me I’m worried about,” he proclaimed to no one in particular.

* * *

“Okay, class, there always seems to be an entire section on the final test about using commas correctly. I have loaded a document onto your laptop that has no punctuation. It is your assignment to punctuate the passage correctly.”

The groans that emanated from the class were loud enough to overpower any buzzing lights or howling winds. “Can’t we write our own stories and work on punctuation that way?” asked Maghi.

“I’m already done,” said Todd, “I just put a question mark at the end.”

“Class, please,” called Michael. “I know you don’t like this stuff, but it is on the test.”

“What’s so important about the test anyhow?” asked a tiny girl named Tonya.

“You know it determines if you go on to Secondary School or not. That’s really important.”

“I don’t want to go to Secondary,” called Joey Torfman. “I’d love to go back to the farm and help my folks. My two brothers have already gone off to Secondary.”

“There’s more to it than that; you just don’t understand...”

As Michael’s voice tailed off, Maghi eased the growing tension by raising her hand. “Mr. Rawley, I’m looking at this document, and I’m not sure if I should use a colon or a semicolon.” She smiled understandingly.

Michael paused for an extended period of time. “I’ll tell you what,” he announced. “I want each of you to write a two-paragraph story that contains at least one correctly used colon and one correctly used semicolon. How does that sound?”

“You got it, Mr. R.,” said Todd. “I’m going to write about owl hunting.”

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2019 by James Rumpel

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