Miss Ratliff's room: Put to the test
Everyone has a stake in the results of a single standardized exam at Grant
April 9, 2000
BY JEFF SEIDEL
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
About 30 minutes before her students arrive at Grant
School, Miss Roslyn Ratliff stands in a corner,
sharpening a box of No. 2 pencils. She is tense and
nervous, cranking the handle, pushing the pencil
harder, her stomach churning, her thoughts spinning.
This is it.
There is nothing else she
can do to prepare her class
for the Metropolitan
Achievement Test, or
MAT, a standardized test
her third-graders will take
for the next five days to
measure their strengths and
weaknesses against other
third-grade students around
It is their test, but it is also
If they fail, Miss Ratliff
believes, she will have
She feels miserable,
coughing and sniffling,
fighting a lingering cold. She
refuses to call in sick. That's
out of the question.
Today is too important.
This week is too important.
She grabs a piece of chalk
and writes a note to her
students: "Good morning.
MAT Testing Begins! Good
She draws a smiley face
and then adds one more
line: "Believe in yourself and
you will do a great job."
Miss Ratliff pauses and
looks at the board. The
message is crucial. She
doesn't want to scare the
27 students in her room.
She wants to create the
right tone, getting them
pumped with confidence
before they take the MAT.
Miss Ratliff is hot and
uncomfortable. She turns to
open the window -- only to
realize she opened it a few
minutes ago. She looks at
the test instructions. Again.
This is the first time she will
administer the MAT and
she doesn't want to make
any mistakes. Paperwork is
spread across several
desks. A letter from Juanita
Clay Chambers, an
associate superintendent for
Detroit Public Schools,
reminds teachers to
maintain "the highest levels
of test ethics."
The bell rings and the
students rush up the stairs.
Miss Ratliff stands by the
door, sending the children
into the classroom. They
have been preparing for this
test all year, following the
core curriculum while
focusing on specific skills
they need to improve based
on last year's results.
Nothing is left to chance.
The school held a MAT rally -- complete with
cheerleaders, skits and posters -- to relieve some of
the anxiety and to get the children excited. Principal
Mildretta Hughes told the children to get a good
night's sleep before taking the test, to eat a good
breakfast and to get to school on time.
Although the MEAP is the test that gets all of the
headlines because it allows comparison between
districts in the state in select grades and subjects, the
MAT is the test that directly affects Miss Ratliff's
classroom. It is the test that takes a snapshot, every
year, of every student in science, math and reading.
Miss Roslyn Ratliff leads her class from the auditorium after a rally
to promote this month's MAT testing.
This year, as the district struggles with reform, the
results from this test will thunder through the entire
Everybody has something at stake: from an
8-year-old in Miss Ratliff's classroom, to Miss
Ratliff, to principal Hughes, to the administrator in
charge of testing.
Amena Turner is a smart, bright student who hides
in a quiet shell.
She earned a 3.6 grade-point average last quarter,
one of the highest in Miss Ratliff's room and a source
of tremendous pride for Amena's mother, after
whom she is named.
In many ways, Amena is a model student. She helps
her classmates, has perfect attendance and has a
supportive mother, who keeps Amena's report card
in her purse to show off to her friends.
But Amena struggled on the MAT last year. She
tested below grade level in reading -- a full grade.
Miss Ratliff can't figure it out. Maybe Amena had a
bad day or maybe she just doesn't test well. Miss
Ratliff doesn't know, but she has several children in
her class whose MAT scores don't reflect how they
do in class.
This year, Amena must place in at least the 11th
percentile of national test takers or she will be
required to attend summer school under a new
promotion policy. If she doesn't do well in summer
school, she will not be promoted to the fourth grade.
The pilot program affects children in second, third,
fifth and eighth grades. The district expects 30,000
students to be sent to summer school if they don't
meet requirements for the MAT, attendance or
But Amena's mother thinks that's a good thing.
"I want her to go to summer school," she says.
Just to keep her safe.
For Amena, going to summer school at Grant, on the
east side of Detroit, would be safer than playing in
her front yard. She lives next door to an abandoned
building that was used as a crack house last summer.
Last year, Amena's mother tried to get her children
into the summer program at Grant. One day, she
walked up to the school and tried to enroll them but
was told the program was full.
"During the summer, they are sitting around on the
street," her mother says. "They aren't doing anything.
There are dope dealers running up and down the
street. I don't want my kids just sitting there. I want
them to do something."
Amena's mother is strict with her children, four of
whom live in the small, three-bedroom house. After
school, she makes them do their homework before
going outside to play.
Amena's mother sees something special in her
"They got it in them," she says. "They got it in them.
They don't do drugs. They know who is doing
Come summer, she just hopes her children are
Anywhere but home.
Even though Amena Turner is a good student, she has struggled on
the MAT and may have to go to summer school.
Before handing out the tests, Miss Ratliff has the
class repeat its mantra: "I will say only positive things
to people ...I will work hard and get smart."
She has them do 15 jumping jacks to release some
stress, and she joins in, making everyone laugh.
Miss Ratliff reads the instructions and starts the test.
The children are scattered across the room, spaced
apart to prevent cheating. Miss Ratliff hopes, prays,
for the children to take their time, for the results to
show what they know, for the test to show what she
has taught them.
Miss Ratliff walks around the room with Angela
Mason, who works in her room for two hours every
During the reading portion of the test, some of the
students are taking their time. Miss Ratliff sees them
reading the stories, going back and reading them
again, a good sign.
But she notices something else. A couple of the
children are flying through the test way too fast. She
wishes they would slow down and take their time.
But she can't say anything.
She looks around the room and hopes they are
reading, really reading, the stories, not just skimming
An entire year of teaching comes down to this
Miss Ratliff is convinced she has done a good job of
teaching this year. She has followed the core
curriculum. She doesn't think there is anything on the
test that will surprise her students. Last fall, Miss
Ratliff was part of a group of third-grade teachers
who went through their students' MAT results and
tried to come up with strategies to improve.
"If too many of my students are failing, it's me," she
says. "It's not them. I didn't get the point across."
Miss Ratliff looks around her room. She is pretty
sure that four children are not reading at grade level,
but the MAT will confirm it. The test is designed to
sort students by their skills and knowledge.
Miss Ratliff is confident they will do well in math.
She spent 12 weeks on multiplication, refusing to
move on until almost everybody had mastered it.
When they started with division, they grasped it
Just in the nick of time.
Multiplication and division are both on the MAT.
But she has concerns about science. It is one of her
least favorite subjects.
Overall, she's confident, but her enthusiasm is
tempered with the reality of what is at stake.
"They will look at the results in June and say, 'Did
you do what you are supposed to do? Were you in
that class, playing around or were you teaching?' "
Principal Mildretta Hughes sits in her cramped
office, looking at last year's MAT results. She is not
satisfied. Far from it. Last year, 31 percent of
Grant's elementary students scored a satisfactory
level in reading, 24 percent in math and 18 percent
in science. In a district where some schools have
only 5 percent of their students scoring in the
satisfactory level in a certain subject, Grant's
numbers aren't that bad.
But Hughes is under pressure to raise the test scores
In seven years, her children have to climb to the 50th
percentile in all three categories or she could be
fired. That's a tremendous challenge, considering that
Grant improved only 2 percent in reading last year, 3
percent in science and fell back 4 percent in math at
the elementary level.
Hughes feels pressure every day to raise the scores.
"We have a lot of barriers to student learning,"
Hughes says. "It's almost as if we are supposed to
ignore those barriers. We feel pressured. In return,
we are pressuring the teachers and the teachers are
pressuring the students."
The barriers start at the most basic level. There are
children at Grant who come to school only to get a
hot meal and to use a working toilet.
There are others, a great number in the lower
grades, who enter school without the proper skills.
This year, half of the first-graders enrolled in school
after skipping kindergarten. Many of those showed
up without knowing their letters or numbers or
colors, putting tremendous pressure on first-grade
teachers, who are forced to give them a crash
course on things they should have learned the year
The Grant School cheerleaders strut their stuff during the MAT
rally. The rally was designed to relieve some of the anxiety and get
the children excited about the test.
The first-graders who continue to lag behind are sent
to two reading-recovery specialists, who try to bring
them up to grade level, a program that has proven
The one-on-one attention is something that Hughes
is thinking of expanding throughout her school.
"We have to make some leaps and bounds," Hughes
says. "I've thought about next year, taking a
seasoned second-grade teacher and having them
work like a reading recovery specialist, pulling the
children aside and giving them some extra work."
Hughes uses the MAT results to determine the
strengths and weaknesses in her school.
Last year, her fifth-graders did worse than any other
grade, but she believes the problem was the
teaching. None of the fifth-grade teachers were
certified -- all of them were substitute teachers. But
she has fixed that. Last summer, she was able to fill
those positions with certified teachers, and she
expects the test results to rise.
She is confident it can be turned around.
"This is a marvelous staff we have here, at Grant and
throughout Detroit public schools," she says. "We
want to do a good job. With all of the obstacles that
we have, I think we are doing a good job."
On the eighth floor of the Schools Center Building,
Juanita Clay Chambers is trying to squeeze another
minute into an hour that has already passed.
She works at a frantic pace, meeting with teachers
and principals and administrators and researchers
and parents, trying to make sure everybody
understands the sweeping changes that David
Adamany, interim CEO of Detroit schools, has
Clay Chambers is in charge of MAT testing, the
promotion policy, summer schools, classroom size
reduction and a few more things she can't remember
"Books," she says, thinking of another thing. "I'm in
charge of getting textbooks to all schools, keeping
the materials fresh. Making sure ..."
She stops for a moment, the thought left unfinished,
as a grandfather clock begins to chime -- one, two
-- there is never enough time for a district on
deadline, trying to improve under the gun.
About 140,000 Detroit children in grades 1-10 are
taking the MAT test this year. Chambers is
preparing for 30,000 children to be sent to summer
school. The summer school classes will be small,
with as few as 10 students per class, and studies
have proven that children in those situations quickly
Which will only help next year's test results.
Clay Chambers uses the data to spot gaps in the
curriculum and to choose textbooks.
There are some negatives to the MAT test. It is not
as tightly aligned with the curriculum as it should be.
But there are strengths: The district can compare
results against young people from around the
country, and it allows them, every year, to assess
each student's growth.
"When I look at my data, I know that I already do a
better job in grades one and two," she says.
"Generally, we are doing pretty good at the lower
grades. It starts to drop off in grades six through
eight across the board. As they progress through the
grades, they seem to do worse. We are really
starting to get many efforts to the middle and to the
high school for this reason."
At the district level, the administrators believe there
is a healthy way to look at test results. It is critical
for a school to look at the results and do something
with them, as they do at Grant.
But there is also an unhealthy way to use the results:
to let the numbers suggest whether it is a good
school or a good teacher. The tests were never
designed to do that.
"Time," Miss Ratliff says.
The testing is done for the day.
Some children are frustrated because they didn't get
"That's part of the test," Miss Ratliff tells them. "They
don't expect you to know everything on this test. If
you do, you are a genius. It's OK if you don't know
this. They purposely put some hard ones on it."
They spend the rest of the day winding down, trying
to get rid of the stress by playing math games. After
lunch, they start working on a science project to
study the growth of mold on wet bread.
Miss Ratliff gives two pieces of bread to each group.
She turns around and a group is laughing and making
"What?" Miss Ratliff says.
She looks back at group two and both pieces of
bread are gone.
The children plead ignorance, but their faces are
stuffed and they are trying to swallow.
She starts laughing and the kids are laughing.
And everything is back to normal.
A teacher and her kids.
All of the stress has disappeared.
Her cold has gone away and she starts to feel better,
comfortable and confident.
"Overall, I think my children will do well," Miss
Ratliff says. "They weren't surprised by anything on
it. I know what I taught them. We have reviewed.
They know it. You have to believe in yourself. I
think they are doing well."
She won't know for sure until June, when the test
results come back a few days before she lets them
go for summer vacation.
Or summer school.
JEFF SEIDEL can be reached at 223-4558 or at