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Larry Efird: A test of character

Writer

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

All across the state of North Carolina, juniors in high school recently took the ACT. Several years ago, the Department of Public Instruction decided that every 11th grader enrolled in a public school would be required to take this test. I’m not sure why, exactly.

I took the ACT when I was in high school — shortly after the era of civil rights — or was it the Civil War? I went to school out of state, and that particular college used the ACT rather the SAT as an acceptance tool. I remember getting up excruciatingly early on a Saturday morning and driving all the way to Greensboro so I could take it. Those were the days before GPS and Google maps, so I had to navigate the old-fashioned way, by using a folded paper map or calling for directions and scribbling down illegible notes which were indeterminable by the time I wrote them all down.

Of course, being a teenager, I didn’t account for any contingencies such as slow traffic or not finding my destination as quickly as I planned. Fortunately, I must have left home early enough to get where I was going because I somehow ended up at the wrong place, and once I figured that out, I had to go to another school across town.

On my way, I only ran one red light (inadvertently). When I successfully reached my final destination, I ran as fast as I could from the parking lot into the building just in time to be the last person allowed in the room. Out of breath, I sat down in my seat to begin bubbling in my personal information on the answer sheet with a freshly sharpened No. 2 pencil.

I had gone to bed at a decent time the night before, so I felt pretty good, but the one-hour drive I had just completed, along with the frantic, cross-town race against the clock in an unfamiliar city, had set me back in self-confidence and optimism. (My hearty breakfast of a Sunkist orange drink and doughnuts had also worn off.)

By the end of the three-hour test session, I really didn’t care much about how I had done. I was just relieved to be finished.

Those are my own memories of taking the ACT. I took the ACT by choice, and I was planning on going to college, so I had also taken classes for three years to adequately prepare myself prior to the moment of truth on testing day.

Today, in an age of testing frenzy, all 11th graders are required to take the ACT. Yes, all. Even if a student has no college plans or has only been in the United States for a few months.

Imagine my surprise when one of my own students, who can barely speak to me in complete sentences in his new language, was required to endure a test originally designed as a college entrance examination. He enrolled in our school in September and has been working hard in his new school environment. He is heroically tackling a cause-and-effect research paper, complete with a thesis statement, in-text documentation and a works-cited page. And remember, he can barely write a sentence or one full paragraph in English, which is not his native tongue.

I admire this kid, and many like him, because they are brave. I also admire them because they are willing to do something that most of us would not. Why are they required to take the ACT prematurely? How could they possibly be successful? Whose idea was it that these students must take a test of this magnitude at this point in their academic careers?

Some things are way above my pay grade, for sure. But it makes me realize that my little bit of stress and inconvenience when I was in high school trying to take a test so I could go to college pales in comparison to the Herculean task many students face today. Hopefully, at some point, this young man will be ready to take the ACT, be successful, and go on to college. Maybe then he can have the last laugh. But right now, this is no joke.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School.

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