STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

The Big Test: Six weeks with one third grade class at a low-scoring elementary school

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

 The big test is coming. 

"I don’t even want to take it, says Musa, a third grader at Congress Elementary in Grand Rapids. "I'm not a big fan of tests."

Musa carries himself like an adult: hands casually in his pockets, shoulders back.  He stands on the edge of a cracked asphalt basketball court.

It’s picture day at Congress, and Musa has on a red t-shirt with black sleeves. He says it’s for special occasions, only.  

On the shirt, the words, “Destined for greatness," are laid out across Musa's chest.

"Did you pick it?" I ask him about the shirt.

"Yeah," he says.

"Why did you like what it says?" I ask.

"Because I didn’t want it to be something bad," he said. "So I put ‘Destined for Greatness,’ so people think I’m good, not bad."

Musa is the kind of kid most parents want their kids to go to school with. He's kind, hard-working, smart, ambitious. The thing is if you’re doing research about a school, you really won’t learn much about the kids in it, or whether they too are destined for greatness.

All you’ll get to know about kids at school comes in the form of a test score. In Michigan, the score you see comes from a test called the MEAP. As a third grader, Musa is about to take the MEAP for the first time in his life. He’s not excited.

"Why don’t you like tests?" I ask.

"Because, sometimes you can get the wrong answer," he says. "And I don’t like that."

I ask him why he thinks adults make him take the test.

"I think to get smarter," he says, hesitantly. "I don’t know, to get your brain working and stuff. Maybe they make you take the test, and then it makes your brain get working, and then they do all the other learning stuff."

"Have you ever learned anything from a test?" I ask him.



Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Renee Howard helps her third graders with how to write a good lead. Third grade is the first year students are required to take the state's MEAP test. On the test, they'll be asked to write responses to prompts. And they'll need a good lead to score highly.

The economic fate of a city, riding on the test scores of an eight year old                            

Musa may not be completely clear on what the test is for, but we know. It’s not for him to learn. It’s not for him at all. It’s for us, the adults.

It’s to let us know whether his school is teaching him the basics: for a third grader, the MEAP will ask kids to round numbers, to count the syllables in a word, to read a passage and write a little bit about what they read.

As citizens and taxpayers we ask schools to prove that their kids are learning so we have some form of accountability. But since the era of mandated student testing started a couple decades ago, we’ve come to use the test scores for more than just accountability.

We use the scores to tell us where to send our kids, and where not to send our kids. Where to buy a house and not to buy a house. That means test scores end up affecting house prices - quite a lot.

That affects city tax revenue, which affects city services.

We’re talking ultimately about millions of dollars in economic impact, the fate of entire cities – all of it resting on how a child, as young as eight years old, performs on a single test. Of course, the test doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about a school.

But what do you see when you look behind those numbers.?

This fall, I spent six weeks trying to answer that question at Congress Elementary. I saw the school from the inside, a rare look at nearly every aspect of how its kids were being educated.We bring you the story of what I learned in those six weeks.

And the test – well, the test doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story.

Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Grand Rapids' Congress Elementary was founded in the early 1890s. The current school building went up in the early 1920s. This photo comes from a binder of the school's historic documents. Renee Howard's third grade class is on the building's third floor, above what's listed as the "sewing room" in this old floorplan.

"A rough building"

Congress Elementary is in a historically-designated three story brick building in the East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids. The school was built in 1923. In old photos, the school looks classic, respectable. Today, the tall windows have been mostly filled in. Instead of natural light, the school is filled with a dull fluorescent glow. The doors on each end of the building are brown, imposing and worn.

About 200 kids go to school here.

"Okay, so when we go up the stairs one hand on the rail please. Choose any seat but don't touch anything and take everything to your seat. Take your backpack to your seat. Ladies in the back, I hope you're listening," says Renee Howard. 

It’s the first day of school, 8:30 in the morning. Renee Howard leads her group of brand new third graders up a stairway that’s survived more than nine decades being trod on by little feet.   

At the top of the stairs, the kids turn left, into their new classroom.

It’s a spacious room, the desks are grouped in little work pods. You can see the school’s history in the solid wood trim and cabinetry along the walls. The windows look west, out over the soccer field, and a little community garden that Howard and a few parents helped maintain over the summer.

Renee Howard is in her third year of teaching at Congress. Before she moved to Grand Rapids, she was a Spanish teacher in the tiny town of Corunna.

She has long brown hair. She always wears comfortable shoes. She’s an animal lover, a vegetarian and a Michigan State fan.

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Michigan Radio
At the end of the first week of class, two students - Ameera and Ashley - write a note for Renee Howard in chalk. The note says, "Thank you Mrs. Howard." "Thank you for what?" she asks. "Thank you for being our teacher."

Ask around the building and you’ll find students love her.

In the lunchroom one day, I tried to ask the fourth graders - who all had Howard last year - what they thought of her.

"She’s a nice teacher," said one boy. "She shows us multiplication, addition."

"She teaches funny stuff," says another. "She brung in her – what was it? Her snakes. Yeah, her snakes and we put em around our neck and pet 'em."

Yes, Mrs. Howard has pet snakes at home. Yes, if the kids earn a special celebration, she will bring them in.

But these students, who had such a good time last year in Mrs. Howard’s class - only 23 percent of kids in their class were considered proficient in reading, according to the MEAP. Only 20 percent were proficient in math.

Bridget Cheney is the principal at Congress Elementary. She knows the scores don't look good on paper.

"If you’re doing a paper search of Congress, you learn that our rating is not exceptionally high," she says. "Our MEAP scores have been trending up the last three years, but prior to that were fairly stagnant and low," she says.

If you’re searching purely on public information,  or if you ask around certain neighborhoods, you will come away with one conclusion about Congress Elementary. It’s not a good school.  

"Academically low, and to use a 'word on the street' type word, a rough building," Cheney says. "Rough behaviorally, rough academically and just rough all the way around."

And yet, to the south of the Congress sits one of the most vibrant and growing parts of Grand Rapids: the East Hills neighborhood. In it you can find a Belgian-inspired microbrewerya pricey sushi restaurantboutique shops and an art gallery, all pretty much across the street from the school.

Although Congress’s boundaries include some of the most affluent parts of Grand Rapids almost all of the kids at the school come from low-income families.

Most middle class parents don’t, or won’t, send their kids there.

Test scores are a big reason why. Every year, the state makes a top to bottom list of schools in Michigan. Elementary school rankings are based entirely on MEAP results. In that ranking, Congress scored last year in the eleventh percentile, meaning it scores lower than 88 percent of elementary schools in Michigan.

"That eleventh percentile speaks volumes to people," Cheney says. "Because eleventh percentile as compared to somebody not too far from here who’s in the ninety-first percentile, that’s huge."

I actually know a little bit about the parents who make the decision not to send their kids to Congress – because I live in one of Congress’ neighborhoods. And while there are plenty of kids on my street, none of them go to Congress.

"I don't think there's anyone out there that wants to come to work and be a part of something that is viewed as unsuccessful, or viewed as a place that would not be in the best interest of children," says Bridget Cheney, principal of Congress Elementary in Grand Rapids.

It’s common in my neighborhood to hear about people who pick up everything and sell their house, just so they don’t have to send their kids to Congress.  

"I have heard that," Cheney says, when I bring it up.

"What was your reaction when you heard that?"

"Sad," she says. "Moderately very sad. Because I don’t think there’s anyone out there that wants to come to work and be a part of something that is viewed as unsuccessful, or viewed as a place that would not be in the best interest of children."  

"He broke my heart"

"I don't care if you call it cops and robbers or dogs and cats. We're don't play tag to chase," admonishes Mrs. Howard.

The first week in Mrs. Howard’s class has a lot of lessons about school procedure. How to line up, how to act in the lunchroom, how to act on the playground.

The students at Congress are given very clear expectations about behavior. "No hands, no pushing no fighting." Every teacher has the same behavior chart on their wall. Every teacher has the same reward system for good behavior.

But third grade is still a place of conflict.

One day at lunch recess, a group of boys are shooting around at the lowered plastic basketball hoops at the back of the playground. A girl named Ameera arrives, bouncing a red ball.

A boy named Jesse grabs a rebound and shoots. Then rebounds and shoots again. Ameera asks for the ball back.

"You’ve got to share," Jesse says, still clutching the red ball.

"But you didn’t even ask me!" Ameera shoots back.

"It’s not your ball!" Jesse says.

Jesse refuses to give the ball back. Ameera storms away, crying.

As she walks away, he shouts, "Crybaby!"

Ameera sits down on a bench, her head in her hands. I try to ask her what happened.

"He took the ball, I wanted it back," she says, sniffling. "And then he called me a crybaby.

"It upset you?" I ask.

"It made me feel bad" she says. "I always get bullied sometimes ... I got bullied in first grade. I got bullied in second grade. Now third grade."

When the bell rings, Ameera gathers herself. I ask her whether Jesse might just have wanted to play with her, and she was the one leaving him out.

She has none of it.

“He broke my heart,” she says.


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Renee Howard's third graders can ...

Neighborhood rumors

In December, I did something I’ve never done before. I went to the annual meeting of my neighborhood association. It was a potluck. I brought soup. And I brought my microphone.

The neighborhood newsletter advertised the big talk for the night would be about how to handle a skunk problem. But that’s not why I was there.

I was there to talk to people about schools. At the meeting was John Helmholdt, the official spokesman for Grand Rapids Public Schools, and Bridget Cheney, principal of Congress Elementary.

After Cheney finished talking, I noticed a family with a baby, slipping out a door at the back of the room.

"Excuse me," I said to the mom toting the baby. "I notice that you stayed exactly as long as the GRPS presentation. Were you hoping to hear something there?"

"Yeah, we were most interested in that," said the woman, who told me her name is Molly Spence. "We’re learning about the whole school system thing. We’re more concerned about school systems than skunks."

In her hands, she held a blond-headed baby boy. 

"And how old is he?" I asked.

"He’s nine months."

"And you’re thinking about schools already?"

"Yeah. Yeah."

"So, what are you thinking?"

"Well, we were thinking about schools when we moved," Spence said. "The people we bought the house from moved out for the schools. I think they moved to Forest Hills."

I asked if they thought they would have to move out too.

"I think we thought that five years before he goes to school is a long time, and maybe things would change," said Molly's husband Martin Spence. "And there’s some options within the system as well to choose a different school."

I asked the two of them what they thought of the GRPS presentation by John Helmholdt and Bridget Cheney.

"It’s encouraging. It’s always good to hear improvement," Molly Spence said. "I know they’ve got some spin to it too."

"We only moved to Grand Rapids two years ago," Martin continued. "So that was the main thing we heard about schools. Like, 'the city’s really good, there’s lots going on. There’s lots of stuff to do in the city and there’s good transport and so on ...' And kind of everyone says, ‘But the schools. The schools are the things that are the problem.'

I live two streets over from the Spences. I hear the same things they hear: GRPS schools are no good.

Most of it is rumor. The one piece of tangible real evidence is the test scores.

Congress Elementary has low test scores.

The unchallenged assumption we take from that is Congress is not a good school. Not good enough for our kids. And if that’s the assumption we make about the school, what assumptions are we making about the kids who go to the school?

Baubles in her hair, and her heart on her sleeve

I want to go back now to a scene from earlier. A scene between a boy named Jesse and Ameera.

When Ameera sat down on the bench and tearfully told me about being bullied, Jesse walked up. He sat down with the red ball she’d asked for, the ball he had wanted her to share.  He looked at her. He looked at me.

He looked genuinely remorseful.

This is not a mean kid. This is not a bad kid.

During the first week of class, I noticed a day when Jesse was upset. He was crying. I asked his teacher, Renee Howard, about what happened.

"He was feeling like kids were not including him," Howard said. "And for somebody like him, he’s very outgoing, and he’s very kind to most kids … And I’m seeing that it seems he takes those things very seriously, and really deeply to heart."

One thing I quickly learned about third grade:There is no avoiding pain. Kids cry every day.

I did not see anything like what the neighborhood rumors had told me to expect from Congress Elementary. I didn't see fights. I didn't hear kids yelling curses at each other, or at teachers.

But I did not see anything like what the neighborhood rumors had told me to expect from Congress Elementary. I didn’t see fights. I didn’t hear kids yelling curses at each other, or at teachers.

Twenty minutes after Ameera broke down on the playground bench, she’s back in class. She turns to me and says, “I feel better now. I just felt a little sad.”

This is something else I would come to learn about Ameera. She’s never down for long.

When you get to know the real Ameera, you will learn she is bubbly and enthusiastic about everything. She’s truthful to a fault. She wears baubles in her hair and her heart on her sleeve.

You will not hear about kids like Ameera if you rely on a neighborhood rumor mill to inform you about a school. And the things that make Ameera a great classmate are not the things that tests do a good job of measuring.


"A better indicator"

"There's no need to rush through your test. Remember, if you're rushing the test knows and it'll stop and make you start over."

Toward the middle of September, three weeks before the MEAP, students at Congress take a different standardized test. It’s called the MAP. One is the MEAP, the other is the MAP. It was confusing for me at first too.  

MAP stands for Measures of Academic Progress. It’s a computer based test, developed by an organization out of Portland, Oregon.

The third graders  sit in the dim computer room, focused intently on the reading portion of their MAP test.

Ameera is on a question about a talking parrot who laughs when she realizes people don’t understand animal language. The test asks her to read a passage about the parrot, and then answer why the parrot laughed.

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Michigan Radio
Ameera focuses on a computer based test, known as the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress). Students at Congress take the MAP three times a year, and Congress teachers use the information from the test to individualize classroom instruction.

Ameera leans back in her chair, and fiddles with her headphone cord. Then she springs forward, putting her finger on the computer screen to trace the words as she rereads the passage. She stops, plays with her hair. Then she puts her hand on the mouse and reads the passage one more time.

Finally, Ameera clicks on an answer: “She is thinking about how people are ridiculous.”

This is the correct answer.  

Students in Grand Rapids Public Schools take the MAP three times a year. This allows teachers and administrators to gauge student learning throughout the year, unlike with the MEAP, which only comes up once.

And because the MAP is on a computer, the results are available immediately. I walk down the hall to Principal Cheney’s office, and she’s already looking up results from last week’s math portion.

I sit down to ask her about the MAP, a test I'd never heard of before I visited Congress.

I asked Cheney if the MAP is a better tool for her than the state-mandated MEAP.

"I prefer it over the MEAP," she said. "Because it’s a three-time per year dipstick, if you will. It gives you more, in my opinion, information because there’s a lot more to it. There’s a lot more information, and it’s not so limited in the questions it asks. So, yeah, I feel it’s a better indicator."

"Limited how?" I ask.

"(Using) theMEAP measures, third graders are going to be measured on second grade standards from last year," she told me. "Whereas with the MAP, if you have a child who is, let’s say reading at a fifth grade level but they’re in third grade, they’re going to be asked those fifth grade level questions. So it pushes forward to give you a better indicator of where they’re at more than just, yes they know second grade content."

"Does the MEAP have strengths the MAP doesn’t?"

"I think it does," Cheney said. "It tests the curriculum that was supposed to be taught the year prior, so it does have good indicators as far as, did the teacher get to the curriculum, teach it deeply, and did the kids learn that information? So I do think it has value. I think the value is just different than the MAP."

Critics of the MAP test say giving it to students three times a year takes too much time out of classroom instruction.

Last year, teachers in Seattleorganized a boycott of the MAP, and refused to administer the test to their students. They said, among other things, high school students had realized the test had no impact on their grades or whether they went to college, so they bombed the test on purpose.

At Congress MAP scores are a highlight. Last year Congress had a bigger growth in MAP scores than any other school in the Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Strangely, Congress’ success on the MAP test was not advertised anywhere outside the school. If you were a parent deciding whether to send your kid to Congress, you would have no idea kids there had shown so much growth.


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How does a school with low test scores handle advanced students? Alan's mom Mirna hears the plan during parent-teacher conferences.

"Tiene un hijo muy amable"

Alan sails across the soccer field as if the air is somehow lighter for him than for everyone else.

"Alan!" screams someone, who has no chance of getting a pass. "Alan! Alan!"

Alan tramples his opponent, darts and dodges, finds an open spot and boots the ball right into the corner of the net. He always hits the corner.

"GOAAAALL!" his teammates shout.

On the field, Alan’s friends call him Messi, after the Argentine superstar Lionel Messi, one of the average to ever play the game.

Musa, another third grader, hates it.

"Everybody says 'MessiMessiMessi,'" Musa groans. "He’s not  even Messi."

"I thought you and Alan were friends," I point out.

"We are," Musa says. "But yeah, I don’t like the part where they say 'Messi Messi Messi.' It gets annoying."

"They call him Messi cause he’s so good at soccer?"

"Yeah, they think he’s the best player in this whole school."

Alan has a long sweep of black hair, always perfectly combed and parted at the side. Girls think he’s cute.

In class, he knows how to stay out of trouble. His friend Dylan spilled the beans.

"Who’s really good at doing stuff, but never gets caught?" I ask Dylan.

A smile creeps across his face.


"Me and Alan," he says. "Sometimes we talk a lot, but the teacher doesn’t see us."

After students at Congress finish their first big assessment of the year, the school schedules parent teacher conferences.

Alan’s mom Mirna tells Mrs. Howard she prefers to talk in Spanish so she can better understand what’s being said.  Howard is a former Spanish teacher.

Howard tells Alan’s mom she has a good son. He helps a lot in class.

Then they get into Alan’s test scores. These scores come from the MAP test we heard about earlier. Howard’s been looking them over for all of her students.And she wants to talk about where Alan is at academically.  

Alan’s scores are really good.

Howard says he’s starting the year at a higher level than most third graders. Howard tells his mom they want to make sure Alan continues to grow, and that class isn’t too easy for him.

She says soon the third graders will break into reading groups, so that the more advanced readers like Alan will get more difficult books.

For math, Alan and some other third graders will walk across the hall to join the fourth grade class. This won’t happen for all math lessons, just things Alan and other students have shown they’re good at.

The instruction is individualized by student and by specific academic skill.

When parents make a decision not to send their kids to a school with low overall test scores, like Congress has, the assumption is that these schools can’t handle advanced students. Advanced kids won’t be pushed.

In Alan's case and those of a handful of other kids in his class that assumption is wrong.


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Jesse, a book lover.

When your friends get Goosebumps, and you're stuck with Amelia Bedelia

There is one book series at the Congress Elementary library every third grader wants to check out: The Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

But the library is not a place of chaos. There are rules here.

One of the rules is you can’t check out a book that’s above your reading level. Emily Clark, a literacy paraprofessional, lays down the law to the third graders in the library.

"So, third grade," she tells them before releasing them to the shelves. "Your number one job is to get a perfect fit, a book that next week you’re going to want to recommend to us."

On every kid’s library card, there is a number. On every book on the shelf, there is a number. The kids are told to find a book with a number close to the number on their card. Nothing too low, nothing too high.

The number on the card is assigned to them based on the MAP test. It’s a reading level measure called a Lexile score. Lexile scores are widely used across the country to match kids with reading material.

In class, Renee Howard explains to the kids why they use Lexile scores. She says going above your reading level is like going to the gym and trying to lift weights that are way too heavy.

"Am I making my muscles any stronger by doing that?" she asks the third graders, who respond with a chorus of "No." "Am I going to get bigger muscles by doing that? By trying to pick up a weight that’s way too heavy? if you’re reading a book that is way too hard for you, it is not helping your brain get smarter and stronger."

Lexile scores have been confirmed as a valuable reading tool by various panels of experts, and that’s why they’re so widely used.

But of course, the first thing the kids do when they find out their Lexile score is to show it to their friends, and start ranking everyone.

And once inside the library, they do everything they can to slip out from the limitations of their number.

"Can I read it?" Alan asks Clark, trying to get approval to check out The Diary of a Wimpy Kid. "I know how to read it. I read it at home."

"That’s also something that’s not allowed," Clark responds. "Don’t go up to the desk with something way out of your Lexile, and say 'But Ms. Clark I know how to read it. I can read these words.'"

But then, a crack appears in the wall.

"Do a try for me," says Ann VanEerden, a volunteer who helps at the school with literacy. "Anyone who can read it can check it out."

Soon, every kid is bringing up books way out of their Lexile range.

Darius is the first to be shot down.

"Man this book is so easy," he says, lugging a heavy Harry Potter volume back to the shelf. "Dang."

Alan and Musa try Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and almost get away with it.

And then there's Jesse. This is not going well for Jesse.

After VanEerden denies him a book out of his Lexile range, he sinks.

"Look at me, look at me in the eyeballs," she says to him. "I want nothing more than you to read those books ... when you start reading the books you can read, you will learn to be able to read the books you want to read."

This explanation is not enough for Jesse. He starts crying. Between sniffles, he keeps trying to prove he understands the book.

But it does no good.

Jesse battled his number - his test score - and the score won.

This particular scene might have been avoidable. But the reality behind it was not. Jesse knew, and he knew before today, that some kids in his class got to read Goosebumps and American Chillers. He got to read Amelia Bedelia.

And even if that was the perfect fit book for him, the book that would most help him improve his reading, it was not the book he wanted.


Test scores can be useful, but it matters how you use them

There are critics of the Lexile score system beyond the Congress third graders.

These critics say Lexile scores fail to account for the motivation of the reader, how a child’s interest in a book can motivate them to focus and comprehend the material, even if some of the text is beyond their level.

Lexile scores for books are determined by the length of sentences within the book, and the complexity of the vocabulary. Context is not taken into account.

The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series uses a lot of creative language, and a lot of words that kids might not otherwise come across. And the series has an unusually high Lexile score. Higher than the Hunger Games and Twilight, but also higher than Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath, A Tale of Two Cities, All Quiet on the Western Front, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and most Stephen King books.

If Lexile scores were the only guide, students at Congress would be able to check out an 1,100-page novel about a supernatural monster that appears in the form of a clown to murder children before they would able to check out certain books from the Diary of a Wimpy Kidseries.  

But of course, that’s absurd. No one would be that careless in how they use a test score.

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Musa: Destined for greatness.

Musa disagrees

“Okay, now, what do we have?”

It’s early October, one week until the start of the MEAP. Renee Howard is using the smart board at the front of the room to teach a lesson on place value. A smart board works a lot like a tablet computer - except that it’s projected onto a whiteboard at the front of the classroom.

Howard is using a program that allows her to manipulate different arrangements of digital cubes. She drags out two blocks of cubes representing one hundred cubes each. Then a bunch of long stacks of ten cubes each. Then a bunch of single cubes on their own.

The question, how many cubes does she have?

"Ashley, how many hundreds?"


"So what is the value of two hundreds? Everyone it’s two hundred."

In the middle of the room, Musa sees what’s happening on the board, and speaks up.

"I don’t agree," he says calmly and confidently.

"Okay," Howard says. "Musa says he disagrees. And I want you to think, why is Musa going to disagree?"

Disagreeing is encouraged in Mrs. Howard’s classroom. No hand raising necessary.

I didn’t really keep any stats, but it seems that Musa disagrees most often. Anytime Howard tries to pull one over, like she’s doing now, Musa is one of the first to catch it, and to speak up.

"Okay, turn to your neighbor," Howard tells the kids. "Why does Musa disagree?"

This lesson is really a review of second grade material. But second grade material is exactly what the third grade MEAP measures. Howard noticed from her own testing that a number of kids in the class were struggling with these kinds of place value problems – particularly when the problem plays the trick Howard just played on the board.

After the kids discuss it with a neighbor, Howard claps her hands to signal it's time to talk again as a group.

"Okay, hands up if you can tell me, why does Musa disagree?"  

A quiet girl named Jakhyla offers the answer. Because there are a lot of tens she says. 

If a test shows you two groups of one hundred and 14 groups of ten, you better not put a two in your hundreds place.

So now we have three hundred … plus 40.

Standardized tests like the MEAP take a narrow view of what qualifies as valuable intelligence. The third grade MEAP measures only reading and math. Some kids in Mrs. Howard’s class show clear talent in music, dance, drawing, sports. None of these talents will be reflected in their MEAP scores.

But there are some kids in the class who do excel at the kinds of things the MEAP tests.

Musa is one of those kids. He’s a great student, curious, attentive, sharp. Even at nine years old, you can tell he’s going places.

Which is even more pretty commonplace when you find out where his family came from.


"I need to build my house"

Musa and his four brothers and sisters live in a two story wooden house about a half mile from Congress Elementary.

I visited one morning when the kids were in school.

Musa’s dad, Jafari and his oldest brother Hamadi, were both sitting on stools in the living room, holding ears of dried corn, cutting the kernels off into a big blue plastic tub.

I asked where they bought dried corn-on-the-cob.

Jafari told me he didn't buy it. He grew it, at a community garden. 

"I used to farm back home," Jafari says. "So whatever I know, I have to teach my children. So now they know how to farm."

Jafari grew up in the small village of Mogambo, along a river in southern Somalia.

When civil war broke out in Somalia in the early 1990s, Muya says his family was caught in the middle. His ethnic group was too small to even have a side.

"Every day people died," Jafari said. "Shooting each other. If you have nice things, people stop you and say, ‘Put down.’ If you didn’t put down, they were going to shoot you. So you have to leave your stuff to them and go to survive by yourself."

Jafari says he and his wife had three children in Somalia. The youngest was just 8 months old when all three children were struck by the polio virus. Without medical attention and without medicine, Jafari says all three children died.

Shortly afterward, Jafari and his wife made it to a refugee camp in Kenya. They lived there for 12 years. They started their family over. Had three more kids. They built a home with mud bricks they made themselves.

They applied to be allowed into the United States. In June of 2003, they got off a plane and started their new life in Grand Rapids.

As refugees, they were set up with an apartment. Jafari speaks five languages but none of them are very common in Grand Rapids. But Swahili was common enough. They managed to get by.

Then one day, he found out he owed rent on the apartment. He’d never paid rent before. The homes he’d lived in, he built himself.

Now in America, he didn’t have a job. He didn’t have money. So the agent assigned to help him took him to get government assistance from the Department of Human Services.

He tells me he sat down with a DHS caseworker, with a translator on the phone.

"And I ask them to give me … "

Jafari asks Hamadi to translate a word for him. Hamadi can't come up with it.

"I ask to get the stuff, which is we can cut the trees," Jafari tries to explain.

"Like a saw?" I ask.

"Yeah, to build my own house," Jafari says with a chuckle. "And they said, 'Why you ask that?' And I said, 'I had family, and the house I live is not mine. So I don’t work. So that house need to be paid. So if I didn’t pay, they’re going to kick me out with my family. I need to build my house.' And they told me, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to find a job. If you didn’t find a job, the agency is going to help you to pay the rent.’'

"They didn’t give you a saw?"

"No," Jafari says, laughing. "They didn’t give me a saw."

"I don't have education. But I'm trying to help my children to get education ... I don't have money, I'm not rich, but I'm going to try to help them," says Musa's father Jafari

Coming to the U.S., the Muya family had to change their ideas about what it would take to survive. They had always been able to take care of themselves. Now Muya says he knows his kids need something else. An education.

"I don’t have education," Jafari says. "But I’m trying to help my children to get education. I need my children to (be) on top. I need them to be a doctor or lawyer or whatever. I don’t have money, I’m not rich, but I’m going to try to help them.”

So, finally, I ask Muya if he knows anything about the test his son Musa is about to take in one week. The MEAP test. He says he doesn’t know anything about it. I ask how he knows whether Musa is doing well in school. He says, he talks to the teachers.

Congress principal Bridget Cheney directs kids in the gym.

Putting all our eggs in the MEAP basket

It's Monday, October 7th. The day before Mrs. Howard’s third graders take the MEAP for the very first time.

"We start first thing in the morning with our MEAP test tomorrow," Howard tells the kids in class. "We’ve talked about it and talked about it and talked about it. It’s here tomorrow. Be on time, because we start first thing in the morning."

That afternoon, Congress holds an assembly for the third, fourth and fifth grade classes, kids age 8 to 11. They’re reminded that the test can take a long time, that they can’t get up and walk around, or talk, or go to the bathroom, except during specific breaks. They’re told to read each question carefully, don’t rush. Eliminate silly answers on multiple choice questions first. Be logical. Get a good night’s rest. Eat a good breakfast.

Earlier in the year, I’d given Renee Howard an audio recorder to take home. I asked her to record her thoughts on the eve of the big test.

"Alrighty," she says on the recording, as a clock ticks behind her. "So it is the night before the MEAP, or the day before the MEAP, actually the afternoon after school. And I’m really excited for the kids to take the MEAP tomorrow, but at the same time I’m kind of apprehensive.

You know, it’s that old saying of putting all your eggs in one basket. I feel like sometimes that that is what the state does with the MEAP is they put all of our eggs in the MEAP basket. And it’s their one window into our students, and really there’s so much more to our students than the MEAP …  it’ll be interesting. I wish there was a more comprehensive look at our kids. I mean, that’s what we’re expected to do as teachers, is look at the kids as a whole, their strengths, the things that they’re capable of achieving. And I wish that there was a better way to show the scope of Congress kids, other than just one test. So, yeah, we’ll see how it goes tomorrow."

Then, the big day finally arrives.

"We're taking the MEAP test today," announces Ameera at breakfast. "Good thing I got a good night's rest."

In her office, the principal, Bridget Cheney, has printed off a list of students for each classroom who might be right on the line between the MEAP’s proficiency targets. The MEAP has  strict rules about how the test  can be administered, and teachers are not allowed to help. But they can pull some kids out to take the test in smaller groups. They can rearrange seating within in the classroom to make kids more comfortable.

Cheney shows Howard a list of third graders to look out for.

"These kids I would surely ... keep yourself right by," Cheney says, pointing to a group of names on the paper. "So you can encourage and stay on task that kind of thing."

"It's your birthday?" I ask her. "It's my birthday," Howard says, smiling. "Today on MEAP day."

Howard takes the list up the stairs to her classroom. On the classroom door, someone has taped candy bars and a note that says Happy Birthday.

"It’s your birthday?" I ask her.

"It’s my birthday," Howard says, smiling. "Today on MEAP day."

She has a few minutes to make sure the room is set up, then it’s back downstairs to get the third graders, get their backpacks and coats hung up outside the classroom, listen to the morning announcements, then a short pep talk.

After the talk, the kids all have a bathroom break. Howard tells them to go if they can. This will be their last chance for a few hours.

Part of what makes the MEAP a standardized is that there are standardized testing procedures, including a rule that no one other than the test proctor is allowed in the room during the test.

That means, after six weeks of floating around the school, being able to pop in to any room at any time, there’s finally one part of the school’s operations that I’m not allowed to see.

The door closes to Mrs. Howard's room. I'm standing alone in the hallway.


If not the MEAP, what?

When we started planning this documentary, we wanted to air it in January, because that’s usually when the results of the MEAP come out. This year, that didn’t happen. Results have been delayed.

Unless the decision is somehow reversed, this will be the final year for the MEAP test. The test has been in use for four and a half decades in Michigan. State lawmakers are currently debating what to replace it with, though it looks likely next year’s statewide test will be the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

The SBA will be computer-based, adaptive, and there will be options for schools to take it more than once a year. In other words, it’ll be a lot more like the MAP test that Congress students already take, and on which they’ve shown exceptional growth.

Michigan’s new assessment may give a more accurate picture of what happens at Congress.

But with the delay in this year’s results, and the unresolved questions about how schools will be ranked next year, Congress is still stuck with the number we talked about at the beginning of this hour. Congress, for now, is still in the eleventh percentile, among elementary schools in Michigan.

I asked Cheney, if the top to bottom ranking isn't the way to judge the school, what is? What does she tell people?

"I tell them first of all, come visit us. See what we do every day," she said. "Moderately talk to us about the curriculum. Talk to us about the Common Core state standards that we’re implementing. And just have them talk to other parents who have had their children here for a period of time, who can tell them what we do and the proficiency levels of those kids."

During my six weeks following the kids at Congress, I met many parents. Here are a few of the things they told me...

Rebecca, whose daughter Vera is in Renee Howard's class:

"I walked around our area, which is downtown, and there’s a couple schools around here, but everybody talks about how bad the inner city schools are, you know, Grand Rapids Public Schools ... I went to Congress one day and I talked to the principal just to get a feel of what it was like.

I walked in there, there was lots of art on the wall. It smelled like my school smelled when I was young. It just felt different. There was diversity all over the place ... So we went there ... When it comes to schools, I think being engaged by their teacher is the most important part to me. To be a better person, to learn how to do things, not so much the scores."

Cornelia, whose son Marquan is in Renee Howard's class:

"I think the teachers up there are more caring ... I think everybody up there is just wonderful, they're helpful.  If you need anything they do their best to try to help you out.

One of the teachers even do things with the kids after school. She came and got them this summer and took them to Chuck E. Cheese. So it's just, I don't know, a whole different vibe down there."

Wendy, whose daughter Anna is in the first grade at Congress:

"We moved into the neighborhood thinking, 'Hey, we'll send our daughter to the neighborhood school.' And then, nobody from the neighborhood sends their kids to the neighborhood school. So it's a little weird like that, but I just think that they don't know that it's fine, it's good ... I think what our neighborhood schools need as much as anything is the good parents who are involved and who care to be there. That's what they need as much as anything, is for as many people as possible who care to be there instead of just assuming they know, based on whatever reputation."                                                          

Jafari, whose son Musa is in Renee Howard's class. 

"When I take them over there, I didn't see anything bad ... So it's nice. And then, to learn to be a good student, that's up to you.                                                            

So, before you sell your house ...                     

I expected this story to be very different.

I expected a school with such low test scores had to be, in some way, a mess. A bad place.

I expected there would be people who cared. But that they would be fighting a losing battle.

I expected to hear what was wrong with the school, the kids, the families. Instead, I came out wondering what's wrong with the test.

I expected not to hear many parents say they love their child’s school.

But I heard that. Over and over.

It doesn’t mean that Congress Elementary is the perfect school. It doesn’t mean every parent should forget about standardized test scores, or that they should assume all low scoring schools are great.

What it means, I think, is that we can’t rely on test scores alone to make a judgment about a school, or about its kids.

It means we have to look deeper.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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