Public education has been in the news this past week. First, we heard President Bush defend his much-criticized "No Child Left Behind Act." Washington state's response to federal policy, the controversial WASL tests, came under more intense scrutiny here in Spokane. And late last week, the Virginia House of Delegates voted 98-1 to approve a resolution requesting that the Congress exempt the state of Virginia from the President's education policy. Coming on the heels of the State of the Union address, this action, taken by this Republican-controlled legislature, can only be viewed as a stinging rebuke.
Yes, we are fighting over the issue of testing. States such as Washington are trying to comply with federal guidelines. Other states, such as Virginia, complain about federal intrusion. But we should note that the criticism isn't aimed at the idea of testing as measurement of accomplishment. The real issues revolve around who is in charge and who is paying for what.
As I thought about all this, I was drawn back in time to my high school graduation, now almost 48 years ago. That day, my father peered at my less-than-distinguished final report card from Washington-Lee High school and said nothing. My dad was a man of few words. But I had come to understand that the difference between "few words" and no words at all.
A few weeks later, he informed me that I had a choice to make. I could head on down to the Navy recruiting office and sign up -- my father, the career Naval officer, did not even consider any other service branch -- or I could agree to enroll in Sullivan's Prep School.
A month or so later, my mother deposited me at the doorstep of an old mansion located near the Cathedral district in northwest Washington, D.C. Previously operated as an embassy, this house would, for the next year, play home to me and another 50 boys. Across the street, in a similar-sized mansion, another 50 boys would reside. One hundred, give or take -- that was the size of our class. We were all recent high school graduates. We were a decidedly middle-class bunch. Most of us claimed scholastic records that reeked of underachievement; mine was worse than most.
Our parents had sent us to Sullivan's with one objective in mind: acceptance into one of the service academies. We were at Sullivan's to prepare for a test -- it was as simple as that. The school, however, had a broader objective in mind. It measured its success both in terms of admission rates and performance once admitted. Performance, so Sullivan's believed, depended not on tests, not even so much on "mastery" of subject matter, but on habits. The school sought to instill good habits in all of us.
We prepped for the academy examinations not so much by focusing on test-taking, but through a regimen -- and it was that regimen which would sustain us beyond our year at Sully's.
Our day began at seven. Following breakfast, we attended classes -- from eight until noon. After lunch, we studied for two hours, had three off, ate dinner and then studied for four more. Each day, from Monday through Friday, we studied for six hours. Each Saturday morning, after breakfast, we would take examinations for four hours, in our rooms, on our honor. It would all begin again on Sunday evening at 6:30. In our rooms by that time, we would study for four hours as we readied for the week to come.
Three proctors served as enforcers. Without notice, they would quietly enter our rooms and decide whether we were really studying. If you were away from your desk, you were not studying. If you were talking to a roommate about anything other than the day's assignments, you were not studying. If you were reading anything other than your texts, you were not studying. Any of these infractions would result in one or more demerits.
Demerits were also tossed out during class time. Colonel Williams, a small, wiry man whom we all feared and hated, usually handed out demerits accompanied by insults. "Dumber than Hell," was his favorite expression. "Herold," he would shout after I failed to solve an equation while at the blackboard, "that's dumber than Hell. Big seven!" Seven demerits resulted in being campused for the weekend. A few more from the proctors, and you might not see the light of day for several weeks. The stakes were always high.
Well, most of my fellow underachievers passed those tough academy examinations. (I didn't go to Annapolis because, as it turned out, I was partially color blind.) When I entered college in the fall, I did well, as did most of my former classmates. We weren't any smarter than we had been. Nor had the academic preparation we received at Sullivan's contributed all that much. Like most young people, our intellects came alive once we entered college. Certainly we did not do well because we had "mastered" the art of test-taking, although we had become good test-takers. We did well because we had learned to study for six hours a day. We had learned to apply ourselves. We had learned good habits.
As I watch this national debate proceed, I wonder: How do you suppose our federal and state governments can test for that?
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Publication date: 1/29/04