Who's failing – the student or the test?

Refugee Bill Clinton Hadam’s tears of frustration in school have ended – and he relishes challenge. But his progress is not considered adequate by federal government standards.

"I know, I know!": Bill Clinton Hadam (left) practices borrowing and carrying in his third-grade math class. (Mary Wiltenburg)

This is part 8 of a year-long project - to see today's full story and the series go to Little Bill Clinton: A school year in the life of a new American.

Decatur, Ga.

It’s hard to get jazzed about four-digit subtraction. As noon approaches on this freezing January day, the kids in teacher Gianna Amsberry’s third-grade math class have been shut inside all morning. They’re ricocheting off the furniture, trying to impress their crushes, seizing any opportunity to think about something besides carrying and borrowing.

Except for one boy, bent over his worksheet, his raised hand waving hard enough to stop traffic: “I know! I know!”

He does know. He’s known the answer to the past five problems. He finished his whole assignment in the time it took kids around him to do the first third. Now, at the board, another student in an orange stocking cap is stuck on 3,516 minus 1,682. At his desk, the boy tries not to shout out the answer, but it’s hard.

“What’s 11 take away 8?” Ms. Amsberry prompts.

“Four?” tries the kid at the board.

“No!” whispers the boy.


“This is getting better,” the boy says, grinning.

This is Bill Clinton Hadam, a 9-year-old who, two years ago, arrived in Atlanta from a Tanzanian refugee camp without a word of English. He came to the International Community School here last year unable to read, and at first could hardly get through a day without bursting into frustrated tears. Now, halfway through third grade, Bill has lots of friends. He’s a diligent student, a natural athlete, a sensitive soul, and funny. He’s also an obedient son and a protective older brother.

In Georgia’s eyes, and those of the US government, he’s something else: a failure.

What does it mean, in America’s public schools, for a student to fail? What does it mean for a school to fail its students?

See the full story here.

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