Mimi Swartz

Back to normal. Sam did not have his glasses on when I went into his room in the morning to wake him up. We had breakfast without debating the potential TAAS benefits of cereal versus eggs. Sam spent most of the day on a field trip to the Museum of Natural Science and got in trouble for making fun of the tour guide’s ears. Still, we’re haunted by the TAAS. Sam’s homework, due Monday, was to write a persuasive essay about the test to send to Gov. Rick Perry. Sam’s stance—one most likely shared by a majority of his classmates—was that it should be abolished, largely because it is boring.

I’m a little more ambivalent. It’s hard to come out against teaching basic skills—it didn’t kill Sam to edit a paragraph for grammar and spelling almost every night, and I don’t think any child in his class suffered by having to write a theme a week in preparation for the writing part of the test. Maybe we did all right because Sam had a teacher who figured out how to teach fourth grade and teach the test, which is probably rare.

Sam’s math and science teacher, in contrast, did no such thing. She’s a teacher from the old school—think of Margaret Mead crossed with Barbara Wodehouse—who is dedicated to the nostalgic notion that if the kids listen in class and do their homework, they’ll have mastered the material, which automatically assures that they’ll master the TAAS. I’d like to share her confidence, but I began to have my doubts when this same teacher told me that some cost-conscious HISD higher up had decided that Sam’s class could do without math textbooks as long as they had her lectures and their math workbooks to practice in. (If I’ve learned one thing since Sam started school, it’s that there’s a big difference between exposing a kid to something and making sure that he or she actually masters it.)

Which brings up the larger question of whether a kid like Sam really belongs in public school anymore. He’s been very lucky so far: He’s had terrific teachers for most of his elementary-school career, and he’s never complained in five years about going to school. The principal there is dedicated, and the parents are vigilant. But HISD created gifted-and-talented programs like Sam’s to keep white middle-class families like ours from fleeing, and it hasn’t really worked; the district, the seventh largest in the country, is ever more dedicated to assuring that the kids near the very bottom learn to spell and calculate, with TAAS as the standard. (Comparing a kid’s Stanford Nine achievement test scores with his TAAS scores can produce a very rude awakening—Stanford is a much better indicator of what a kid has actually learned, partly because it’s harder and partly because the kids aren’t prepped relentlessly for it.) The vaunted Texas miracle, as most people know by now, has been achieved largely by the kind of constant drilling that doesn’t necessarily translate into learning, and by forcing out the kids deemed unteachable, which accounts for Texas’ harrowing dropout rate (50 percent for minority children). The best teachers hate it because TAAS takes away from real teaching, and I’m not sure how much protection it provides against really bad teachers. (Nearly every year there’s some sort of TAAS-related teaching scandal.)

But I’m done thinking about this for the year. Sam and I got about halfway through the Rick Perry brainstorming before both of us realized that, when it came to TAAS, we were both pretty burnt out. Gamely, I tried one last question. “So,” I asked, “is there anything good about the TAAS?”

Sam pushed his chair back from the dinner table where he’d been studying and started walking into the other room to watch Nickelodeon. “Yeah,” he said, making his exit. “When you get your results and you passed.”