In her final year as a Boston public high school teacher, Junia Yearwood attended her first graduation ceremony. It was a charade, she writes in the Boston Globe.
I knew that most of my students who walked across the stage, amidst the cheers, whistles, camera flashes, and shout-outs from parents, family, and friends, were not functionally literate. They were unable to perform the minimum skills necessary to negotiate society: reading the local newspapers, filling out a job application, or following basic written instructions; even fewer had achieved empowering literacy enabling them to closely read, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate text.
However, they were all college bound — the ultimate goal of our school’s vision statement — clutching knapsacks stuffed with our symbols of academic success: multiple college acceptances, a high school diploma; an official transcript indicating they had passed the MCAS test and had met all graduation requirements; several glowing letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselors; and one compelling personal statement, their college essay.
Yearwood started as a 12th-grade English teacher in 1977 in Roxbury. Over the years, she saw the advent on tests, such as the MCAS.
Teachers, instructors, and administrators made the test the curriculum, taught to the test, drilled for the test, coached for the test, taught strategies to take the test, and gave generous rewards (pizza parties) for passing the test. Students practiced, studied for, and passed the test — but remained illiterate.
Students were given A’s and B’s “for passing in assignments (quality not a factor), for behaving well in class, for regular attendance, for completing homework assignments that were given a check mark but never read,” Yearwood writes.
Teachers were pressured to pass undeserving students so they could walk across the state at graduation. If necessary to produce a graduate, administrators found MCAS waivers, transferred students to a “special needs” category or put students in online “credit recovery.”
Last June, she attended graduation for the first time ” at the urgings of my students — the ones whose desire to learn, to become better readers and writers, and whose unrelenting hard work earned them a spot on the graduation list — and the admonition of a close friend who warned that my refusal to attend was an act of selfishness, of not thinking about my students who deserved the honor and respect signified by my presence.”
Yearwood appears in a 2008 Globe story about attempts to turn around English High in Jamaica Plain, where she taught for most of her career. She gives a D- to a student who makes up missing work on the last day in hopes of walking across the stage to pick up a diploma.