I woke up to an early alarm on a Saturday a few weeks ago, fumbled around in the dark for jeans, a t-shirt, and my Giants hat to cover my raging bed-head. I drove over to Starbucks and treated myself to a coffee and chocolate croissant, which I gobbled down on my way to the city of Alameda. I passed by the spot talked about in that excellent independent education documentary Defies Measurement, then drove to the water and stopped and finished my coffee before heading to where I was really supposed to be going.
Where was that? I was supposed to be at a high school with hundreds of other teachers or soon-to-be teachers who were to line up to sit in classrooms to take various standardized tests written by Pearson. There was the CBEST, the CSET, and to make it more interesting, the SAT. I wish I could say that I just said, “Screw this, I’m an anarchist, and I don’t need to stand in this line.” But of course I went. I was there to take the CSET for a bilingual authorization so that I can teach in a dual immersion program. In New Mexico, I was a bilingual math teacher and after a few years even learned how to do that pretty well. I wanted that license to follow me to California but it did not. Apparently California has decided that New Mexico is not qualified to grant those types of licenses. The funny thing about that is New Mexico could teach California a thing or two about bilingual education since there it is actually legal. In California, since the passage of prop 227 by the people in this “liberal” state made it essentially illegal for parents to decide whether or not they want their kids to learn two languages, parents need to sign a waver allowing their school to provide bilingual education. Teachers need to have a special bilingual authorization for these programs but there doesn’t seem to be any financial incentive for this like there is in New Mexico, a state that wants people to have pride in bilingualism, and thinks of it as an important skill. A little bit like all the other countries on the planet.
Xenophobia aside, I grabbed my packet of pre-sharpened #2 pencils and my printed ticket I had paid over two hundred bucks for, and prepared myself for five hours of an empathy-building opportunity, where I could feel like I was in solidarity with miserable students all over the country. I stood in line behind two middle-aged women who were terrified of the CBEST, California’s basic skills test for teachers, as they herded us like cattle into the school. I was directed to a table where they would confiscate my cell phone for the day and then to my classroom. As I walked into the room, the proctor greeting us at the door told me that I would need to take my hat off. This put me in a bad mood as my bed-head from the morning was compounded by about three months of crazy hair growth. I sat down and waited as we were not allowed to open our test booklets. Proctors confiscated food from test-takers and then read us a list of terrifying rules that outlined all the ways our test could be invalidated. When we finally started taking the test, it began as a listening comprehension test where we listened to random scenarios presented in Spanish and answered multiple choice questions about them. I was struck by the irrelevance of the scenarios and the many different ways that the questions could be interpreted. When that part was over and we were working quietly and nervously, hoping all that money we had spent would not be in vain, I heard rustling and crunching sounds coming from the corner where one of the proctors sat. I asked myself, did she bring those snacks intending to piss us off, or was she just digging in to the food that she had confiscated from the people with blood-sugar issues? Mental note: don’t eat in front of kids during tests.
Overall, the test was horrible, and I can only conclude that it is about making money for Pearson because my passing or failing it did not have any real bearing on whether or not I was a qualified bilingual teacher. I mean, me passing it would only prove that I was a good test-guesser, but would have nothing to say about my abilities to relate to kids and inspire them to achieve. While an amazing teacher, who might come from the background of the students in her class and inspire them with her energy and example and love for teaching to excel in the classroom and beyond, might blank on tests due to nerves and bad memories of similar situations growing up. Still, I kept on. I got to the final question in Spanish, an essay question (there weren’t many of those). I won’t reveal what the question asked but will talk vaguely about what I wrote about. It was an essay about Rigoberta Menchú who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as an indigenous Guatemalan woman who fought for the rights of the indigenous people in her country, wrote books, ran for president of the country twice, and became a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador all despite a small amount of elementary school education, and the murders of members of her community and family.
I won’t say whether this essay had anything to do at all with Pearson’s actual test question, or whether or not I even passed the test, but I want to thank that company for giving me that time to reflect. It helped me to realize that teachers need to be in solidarity with students who are systematically being robbed of their education, that we need to look to figures like Rigoberta Menchú as inspiration to fight this system for our students’ sakes, and for the sake of our society in general. In California, there is no extra monetary value that I know of for being a bilingual teacher, but that isn’t really why teachers are in this game in the first place.