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Confronting learning in a test-driven age, an innercity teacher grapples with realities

Jeanette Boston teaches English learners and poor kids and registers small test gains


By Emily Pauker

LOS ANGELES - Fourth grade Vermont Avenue Elementary school teacher Jeanette Boston has a class this year of 25 “gifted students” which she said is “heaven.”  Last year, her class was different: all 31 children were English language learners, and the scores on standardized tests produced the predictable results.

“It depends on the students that you have,” says the veteran teacher. “I had a very smart group the year before. I had a lower group last year I have a higher group this year. So to look at year to year is really not fair. What’s more fair is to look at the child, if that child experienced growth with that child in the academic year.”

Whether fair or not, test scores have become increasingly important in the era of No Child Left Behind, the federal legislation now in its fifth year. Under the bill, studentsare expected to test at grade level. Too many low scores in a repeated number of years, and the school fails to meet “average yearly progress,” three words in the legislation that have put increasing pressure on teachers like Boston and schools like Vermont Avenue Elementary.


9th Street School
Jeanette Boston
  SIDEBAR: A closer look with Jeanette Boston.

Situated in South Los Angeles, the two- story red brick school is made up of two buildings. Outside there are two spacious playgrounds with a chain-link fence that surround the school that sits in a working-class neighborhood. Ninety-five percent of the school’s enrollment is Latino.  Vermont Elementary’s socioeconomic portrait suggests low performance on standardized tests,  and the school did not disappoint in recent test results. Though Vermont’s test scores were well below the average on the California Standards Test, the school’s students actually did improve their own performance year to year on another test, the National Assessment of Academic Progress. In that test, Vermont students posted a two-point gain in math and no gain in reading. Small successes buoy the teachers, but they still chafe under the emphasis on testing.

Echoing concerns of teachers across the country, Boston said the heightened emphasis on test results ignores the realities of her classroom. These realities include that fact that minority students and students from lower socieconomic brackets are taking a test that is not designed for them.

“You do not see that Suzie went to Mexico for a month,” she said. You do not see that Manuel  is late 30 minutes every day. You do not see that sometimes he is getting a lot of help at home, and some child is not, “ Boston said.

Boston said that the test assumes that everyone is “the same.”

“We all know that that is not true. We do not have kids coming in the door all at the same time,” Boston said. Boston said her student are starting the year with “different backgrounds and learning capabilities.”

“That is why as teachers we have to address all of the modalities of learning. Some of them are more auditory some of them are more visual. Some of them are more hands on,” Boston said.

Boston also said the school faces the obstacle of being a Title I school, “which means all of our kids are on federally funded breakfast and lunch. A kid cannot learn if they’re hungry. Sometimes they come to school and they do not have the proper clothing to be warm. Alternatively, their hungry or we have to send them to the nurse because they did not eat . . . Therefore, we try to address all of their needs to make it conducive to learning but it is not an even playing ground. It is not and it probably never will be. So you do the best you can with what you have,” Boston said.

Besides hunger, Vermont students and their teachers face other hurdles in their quest to improve test results. The school day is stuffed with other requirements besides academics, and there is little wiggle room in the day to spend more time on the subjects tested.  Physical education, for example, is required 90 minutes every day, though Boston says they sometimes “have to fudge it because we are tested on language arts and math.”“I’m not saying that PE isn’t important because a lot of times the kids stay inside and are little couch potatoes,” Boston said. 


Despite the challenges students face in registering high scores on standardized testing, Boston faces she realizes their importance.  She said the exams help measure a student’s growth

“You have to have some means for assessment,” Boston said, who said some teachers complain about teaching to standardized tests. She doesn’t agree. 

“You’re not really teaching to the test. You are teaching to California standards. Those should be reflected in the test,” Boston said.

The California Standards Test Portion of the Standardized Testing and Reporting Test measures how well students meet California’s “academic content standards.” Vermont fourth graders last year scored 9 percent higher in math, improving to 36 percent  proficient or above last spring compared with 27 percent in 2006. The state average of students scoring proficient or above in math was 57 percent in 2007, up from 54 percent in 2006.  In language arts, Vermont scored 25 percent proficient or above last spring, down 5 percent from 30 percent in 2006. This was also much lower than the state language arts scores which were 51% proficient or above in 2007, up from 49 percent in 2006.


Boston used to be a school board member. with Redondo Beach Unified School District before she became a teacher. Boston joined other school board members in refusing to give a standardized test in the 1990s because she said the majority of the board felt the test was not appropriate for the students.

“Sometimes I think they are (biased). When you are talking about polo or sports that some of these kids have never even heard of skiing. Nobody is skiing here. Nobody is playing polo here. If you’re talking about things that these people are not even aware of how can you expect them to respond or even know what you’re talking about,” Boston said.


Challenges aside, Boston said she thinks test takers they are getting more sensitive and that the tests themselves are getting more general.


“A lot of questions have Jose and Maria but it’s more than just names. It’s talking about things that some kids don’t have any idea what they are talking about,” she said.

When asked about how the kids react to the test, she says that “This is just information that they want to know about the learning that we’ve been doing for the whole year and so it is not something you can really go out and cram for the night before. You either know it or you do not.”






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