by Susan Lazear
When Autumn texts me, she always ends with, “Sorry to bother you.” Sometimes she sends a heart, too, or sometimes it’s a row of hearts.
Her Facebook profile picture is from graduation day. Her other pictures are from when her parents paid a local photographer to take her picture in a field, in front of a hay bale, next to a horse barn at sunset. Autumn is a country girl.
In all of the pictures, her hair is carefully curled. She is smiling. Her large, brown eyes look directly into the camera. She wears a button down shirt, jeans, and cowgirl boots. On her Facebook page, she writes about perseverance in the face of adversity, letting go, and learning hard lessons. She posts on my Facebook page that she misses me. She misses our talks.
I have known Autumn for five years. I’m a Reading Specialist at a high school, and she was in my freshman reading class. She was quiet, helpful, and friendly. All of her teachers root for her and wish her well. They know she struggles in school sometimes, but they are all pulling for her. This is what they say to me when I mention her name to them: “Autumn is so sweet.”
Autumn wants to be a nurse. She laughs easily, often, and suddenly. She will be a good nurse, I think. She is cheerful and caring, and she does the jobs that others don’t want to do. She is kind to everyone, even people who are not kind to her. She is open and generous. I think to myself: when people say that someone has a big heart, this is what they mean. Autumn is what this looks like.
Part of my job involves working with the students who must retake the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. I have come to dread spring with its seemingly endless testing cycle. Every year, I agonize over individual test scores. 400 is passing. Students who do not pass the End-of-Course Reading test do not graduate, even if they pass their courses. They walk, but they get no diploma.
I meet with three 12th grade girls every day third period. They will retake their SOLs in spring. Autumn is in this group. We read 1984 together and independent novels. We discuss them. We practice old, released SOL tests and analyze them.
Autumn likes to read Nicholas Sparks novels, but she is shy about this. She blushes when the other senior girls talk about boyfriends and love and sex. She laughs and covers her face with her hands while the other girls chatter.
On the Reading Standards of Learning test, the state tells Autumn that she is a 399. She attempts the test five times—maybe six—I stop keeping track. She consistently scores in the 375-399 range. We analyze all of the tests. We practice deep breathing. We do everything I can think of to do. She never complains. She hugs me and thanks me for my time. Sometimes she cries. Sometimes I do.
After school one day, we take a field trip. I take Autumn and the two other girls to the movies and out for chicken and waffles afterwards. We go to the mall and pile onto each other to take a picture in a photo booth. We get the giggles and laugh so hard, we almost fall out of the booth and onto the floor. Autumn takes me to her favorite store in the mall, and I find myself looking at wriggling puppies through glass. She and I decide definitively which one is cutest.
Autumn is not afraid of hard work. She works full time with her father, after school, raking leaves for the elderly, cutting grass, cleaning a local church’s youth center, vacuuming, emptying trash, polishing wood. She doesn’t always love her job, but she is grateful for it. She tells me that she does love the time she gets to spend with her dad.
Autumn’s school schedule allows her to leave early. She never does. Instead, she comes to see me every day without fail. I buy more Nicholas Sparks novels for her to read. I help her with English assignments. We practice more of the released SOL tests. She practices at home, too. She passes all of the practice tests.
Autumn takes three and a half hours to take the test. She read everything, she tells me. She took breaks. We wait for scores.
She does not make it. I write a scathing email to the Virginia Department of Education about the new test. The test is bad. What would benefit from additional clarification? The questions on the test. They are tricky and convoluted. My email doesn’t do anything, really, except get me a call from Central Office and another chance for Autumn to test again. But this is it, I think. This will be the time she gets through it. But she doesn’t pass this time or the next.
The state tells me Autumn has difficulty recognizing the author’s main purpose and making inferences. They say she has trouble examining text structures to aid comprehension and analyzing complex, informational texts. And there’s more—much more—but I have to stop swimming in the data because it feels an awful lot like drowning and because what it tells me changes with each test administration. The state reminds me not to teach to the test.
I am not in the audience when Autumn crosses the stage. I am helping students line up behind the stage and don’t even hear her name being called. Like all the girls, she wears a gold cap and gown. I imagine she wears heels and worries about tripping when walking up to shake hands with the principal. Her diploma sleeve is empty.
I see Autumn’s father in the hallway after graduation. He is waiting for Autumn, and she is not there yet. He thanks me for working with Autumn on the SOL test. I tell him she is an extraordinary girl, that I loved working with her, that he should be proud. He agrees with me. He keeps nodding and says, finally, “Don’t worry, she’ll get this.” I answer, “I know. She will.” I nod too and look down at the ground. I feel suddenly emotional. While I am walking away, I say a silent prayer that we are right, that she will pass the SOL in the summer.
She doesn’t pass. Autumn’s guidance counselor calls me to tell me that she cannot take the test again until winter. She has already called Autumn. She says Autumn cried when she told her. Autumn does not text me right away. Later, she tells me this is because she was afraid I would be disappointed in her. I tell her I’m not. And it’s true; I’m not.
It’s just that she gets nervous, she tells me. She has to take medicine now and did she tell me that? She went to the doctor to get medicine for anxiety because she gets so nervous that her heart pounds and she shakes when she has to take the test. But she’s really trying hard and looking at tests online again, and she hopes she will get it in December. She thanks me and tells me that she misses me. She’s sorry to have bothered me.
My school administration, our guidance department, and I try, unsuccessfully, to lobby for a retroactive 504 (medical plan) for Autumn’s anxiety. With this, she would be eligible to receive a locally verified credit and pass with a score over 375. Even though the testing is the most likely cause of her anxiety, the proposal for a 504 is flatly rejected. In the words of one county official, “504s are never used solely for testing purposes.” Another said, “she is technically not a student…her cohort was 2014, so even if she passes at a later date, her passage won’t affect 2014 graduation statistics.” As if—somehow—any of us were concerned about the data.
Autumn doesn’t pass in December. She tells me she is considering getting a GED, so she will be able to then enroll in a nursing program at our local community college upon completion. I encourage her to enroll in the community college anyway while continuing to test at the high school. I tell her she is more than this test. She knows, she says. And she’ll get it. But, she tells me, she wouldn’t feel right being at the college, like she’s lying just by being there because she hasn’t graduated yet. She just wants the test behind her, so she can begin her future.
Autumn retakes the test with the 2015 cohort in January. She scores a 397 and a 391.
Despite our best efforts, Autumn will not be allowed to attempt the test again until April 2015. In very carefully chosen language, Central Office implies that we are asking to push the boundaries of the law by asking if Autumn can have an earlier testing date. They are compassionate, too, they tell us, but there is nothing they can do. She will just have to try again in spring.
Susan Lazear is a high school Reading Specialist in southwestern Virginia with degrees from Virginia Tech and Radford Universities. She loves working with students, reading, writing, and spending time with her family and pets. When she is not doing that, she’s probably making new plans to fix up her 100-year-old farmhouse or binge watching HGTV.