The glitchy rollout of TNReady to replace Tennessee's TCAP test is sparking debate and anxiety.
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David Cook

It is difficult to put into words the Keystone Cops-ian farce that is TNReady.

First, online testing went belly-up. Then the paper test wasn't ready on time. And then it wasn't ready again.

There's a ho-hum silence from Nashville, as testing corporations fleece us for millions. There's the jagged, 50-espresso stress teachers feel.

And when Test Day does finally roll around — again — state officials choose the worst time of all: the Monday after Daylight Savings Time expires, the most sleep-deprived morning of the year for our kids.

In times like this, we need powerful words.

We need poetry.

"I am not a test score.

"I am more than that.

"I am loveable because I have a ear to ear smile.

"I am a motivator because I can push anyone to do better.

"I am not a 50% or less.

"I am more than that."

These lines come from Lyric, an East Side Elementary fifth-grader. Her teacher is Marina Meadows, this rock star of an English teacher who, this test season, taught her students how to write poetry as an act of high-stakes-testing resistance. (Yes, the lessons met all required state standards).

"I am a scientist who loves science class.

"I am a responsible child who is always in control.

"I am more than a checkmark.

"I am a person with curiosity.

"I am not a test score.

"I am worth far more than that.

"I am all the things a test cannot tell me."

Those lines are from Jennifer; she and the other students in Meadows' class — half Hispanic, half black, half boys, half girls— have formed a camaraderie, a fellowship. They know and love each other.

Plus, Meadows has put in the extra mile. After school, visiting homes. The way to a kid's heart and mind is not through a test; it's through relationships.

"A class that I can truly say feels like a family," said Meadows.

And you don't test a family. You love a family.

"I am more than a answer to a question. I am me.

"I am a person with love inside my heart.

"I am not a test score.

"I am worth far more than that.

"I am all the beautiful things a test cannot see."

That's from Niya; isn't it stunning?

As this year's test began melting down, Meadows knew she had to confront the growing anxiety among her students. (Last week, I heard the story of one child at another school whose Fitbit heart rate spiked to 117 beats per minute while she took the test. After the test? Back to a normal 70 beats.)

So Meadows turned to poetry. Yes, they did all the normal, teachery things: analyzing, dissecting, comprehending.

But Meadows also made it personal.

She had her students write about their own lives, and their feelings about the Big Test.

"I really wanted this assignment to be about their individual worth that consequently is so often stolen by these tests," said Meadows.

"I am tough because I can stand up to hard times.

"I am smart because I read.

"I am a girl who is a fighter like Ms. Meadows.

"I am a beautiful fashion model who looks fresh on the runway.

"I am not just a human being with a body for a shell.

"I am more than that."

That's from Ja'Riyah. (Did you notice how she identifies with her teacher as a tough, stand-up woman? Please, somebody, give Meadows a raise.)

These poems have no expiration date; whenever her students go through hard times, or fail at something, she trots these poems out. Don't hang your head. Remember what you said about yourself?

Just look at what Alan wrote.

"I am not an F or an A.

"I am more than that.

"I am a gamer who likes Minecraft.

"I am a athlete who likes soccer.

"I am a person that is brave.

"I am all the things a test cannot assess."

Initially, her students were afraid to criticize the Big Test, afraid they or their teacher would get in trouble, which is a big-hearted fear, yet also a dangerous one. It means one untold consequence of Big Testing is a sort of psychological and civic silencing; high-stakes testing muffles and gags our students' sense of power and ability to think for themselves, while using language as a means of protest and self-reflection.

For Meadows, the poetry was a reminder of many things Big Testing wants us to forget.

"I teach people, and they can do so much more than just learn for the sake of taking a test," said Meadows.

Just listen to what Yuvonne has to say.

"I am caring because I gotta lotta love in my heart.

"I am self-discipline because I control my life.

"I am more than a score.

"I am a person with a good heart.

"I am all the things a test cannot assess.

"What do you have to say about that?"

What do I say?


Yuvonne, when you grow up, please become a teacher.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and teaches at McCallie School. Contact him at or 423-757-6329.