Friday, February 13, 2015

My Son Climbed a Tree of Tests

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life thinking its stupid." Albert Einstein

I walked into a conference room, and thought, "Are these rooms called conference rooms when they are in an elementary school?" The room was already crowded. I silently counted the people. There were three teachers, two administrators, and one person I didn't know. So a total of six people to my one. A few years prior I had helped with the accounting consolidation of some recently purchased manufacturing plants. That conference room only had four people in it. Four people to work on a purchase involving millions of dollars, and hundreds of jobs. Seven people to discuss a seven year old's education. Six of them sure that I was wrong.

Our younger son was inducted into the National Honor Society this week. He's also been inducted into the Beta Club, and received an Academic Achievement Award. He has college credit waiting. I could go on, but already I sound like one of those moms you avoid like the plague on the playground so you don't have to spend the next hour hearing how their child cured cancer in their sandbox yesterday while changing his own diaper and pressure washing the siding. But here's the rest of the story:

Once upon a time he was a special education student. He was placed in Special Education at seven years old. He was taken back out of Special Education in a matter of months. Still, I remember it with the sting of a parent who was ignored. They said he couldn't read at grade level, that he didn't identify letters correctly, he had an "issue" with words. I said, he has a confidence issue. He DOES understand, and he does know. He's an intuitive kid who looks for your cues as to what answer you are looking for, and then provides it even if it's not the one HE thinks is correct. He has an older brother who has severe ADHD. I spend too much time working with the older brother on homework and not enough time working with our younger son. I need to improve. He needs me to pay more attention to his needs. He needs to know that it's OK to give his answer and not the one he thinks others want to hear. I believe Special Education is wonderful, and vital. But it was not the proper placement for this child. If I thought it was I would have embraced it, volunteered, done everything I needed to do for him. But it wasn't the right placement, and we have TESTS to thank for those few months.

It was hard not to flash back to that meeting during each awards ceremony. It was hard not to remember my entreaties that his needs were not being correctly addressed. The "tests" - so many letters, and names I had never heard of - all the "tests" said he wasn't capable. It was hard to ignore the creeping smugness I felt regarding all who tried to convince me that he would never read well at his level.

Once he entered the Special Education program, the wonderful teacher there worked one on one with him. She was open to listening to my assessments, and never gave me that all too common condescension that I had encountered in some in the education field. The attitude that said that since I was NOT an education professional I couldn't possibly know what I was talking about did not exist with this teacher. She recognized that parents spend more time with their children then teachers so we might have an inkling of an idea regarding the child's strengths and weaknesses.

Before long, the talented Mrs. R was discussing with me his confidence issues. We were discussing how to make him comfortable with answering with what HE thought was correct, and not just what he THOUGHT someone wanted to hear. Shortly after that, he scored so ridiculously high on an assessment test that a small "graduation" party was held for him, and he was back in his original classroom. Oh, the irony - tests placed him in, tests placed him out. 

By the fourth grade, he had the fabulous Mrs. H. She loved, loved, loved on this child just as she had his older brother, encouraging his love of History, his love of reading, and giving him the experience he needed to flourish. His teacher, Mrs. C helped convince him - he is a bright kid. I've silently thanked those teachers during every awards ceremony - and I've written my thanks to them also.

It may sound like I'm blasting my local school system. I'm not. We have a fantastic music program that both our sons have thrived in, the high school offers several foreign languages, and AP classes, and every negative encounter with an educator has been offset by hundreds of positive ones. 

But year after year...tests...and tests....and tests. Tests tell us where he is flourishing. Tests tell us where he needs improvement. The tests say which teachers are doing well. SERIOUSLY? Do the tests tell whether a teacher has a classroom with six kids who have horrific home lives, three more who have siblings getting all the attention at home (as mine was - I readily admit that), and four who came to school hungry?? Do the tests recognize that some kids DON'T test well in a timed environment or that some kids mature at a different rate, and will test astoundingly well next year?? 

Now, I must acknowledge, I circle around very distantly the issue of Common Core. My kids aren't affected so I've viewed some articles but it's not a heartfelt exploration. But I have an issue with the word COMMON. To me, it implies that all is the same. ALL IS NOT THE SAME. Tests look for a commonality. Do you know the word - infatuation? It's an SAT word. I'll use it in a sentence. Our nation is infatuated with testing. But infatuation implies a passing fancy, not a deep seated love. It strikes me that a nation that was founded based on individuality is now striving for likeness in all. Tests and their ability to rule our lives is a national problem in our education system.

There is no one learning style. There is no one maturation rate.  Our education system and our politicians need to recognize the uniqueness.  There is no one correct answer that makes everyone else an ignoramous. A little civility among the adults might be nice. One group advocates testing. Another group throws money around. Programs are eliminated, programs are added, and at the end of the day we still suck at teaching our youth. Identification of learning disabilities is vital, and identification and intervention at a young age are key. BUT, we need some programs which allow children to play, and learn, to develop, and not be put under pressure to meet a norm which is unreasonable. 

I never bothered to teach my children the alphabet before kindergarten. Silly me, I thought that was what kindergarten was supposed to help with. I DID teach them how to build a fort out of sticks, and to pretend the play set was a ship on the shining seas. I was mightily criticized for a five year old (our older son) not knowing the alphabet completely. The same five year old is now 18. He knows the alphabet now - English, and Mandarin. He'll be attending college in the Fall. And he STILL knows how to lash together sticks for a fort - might be helpful during a zombie apocalypse or when he has his own children.

Are there complexities that I don't begin to discuss and address - how wealthy is the school district, how involved are the parents, are there language issues, and I could go on - absolutely there are issues. Do I have answers? Absolutely not. But I wonder what happens to the child who doesn't have a parent able to sit on the phone, attend meetings, and email concerns. The parent who will lose a job for missed work can't attend meetings during the school day. The parent who doesn't speak the language can't discuss their point with reasoned passion. The parent or guardian who doesn't have internet access can't email, or check the parents portal for grades/assignments or help prepare for an almighty test which sets a path at seven years old. Where would the seven year old in that first paragraph now be at in 11th grade? Would he be throwing his mail from colleges into a basket to look at later? Shouldn't that be a concern? Should money be spent on more tests? Is that REALLY helping the child? Instead of more money on tests, how about more money on instructors, and counselors, and psychologists so the child can be seen as the individual and not as test results?

Children are these wonderful, amazing creatures - resilient, imaginative, unprejudiced. Are we allowing them to finish their education that way?

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