September 16, 2019
This week I did something I never wanted to do as a teacher mom—I freaked out over my 3rd grader’s benchmark test score. I straight up panicked. He scored fine on the math test, but his reading test was low, and has been in a steady decline since he started school. I knew the test score didn’t reflect my kid’s ability, but I also knew that it was going to impact his education. My boys are 13 years apart. It’s just the way it worked out. The experience has had pros and cons, but it’s been mostly good. The best part has been seeing the long-term outcome of our parenting choices on our oldest as we are faced with the same choices with our youngest. They are very similar. And the biproduct of the gap is that our youngest has learned how to communicate and interact with people in different age levels because he spends time with his brother and friends. In other words, he’s advanced because of his life experience.
My kids have always been the ones that would sit down and read every book on their shelf curled up on the floor for the afternoon to get lost in the world of reading. They have incredible imaginations that can run away with the simplest idea. They can read a book and spend the rest of the afternoon creating the world they read about with crafts, blankets and furniture moved about. Sometimes, any grown-ups in proximity are drawn into their imaginary world and, even if I am vacuuming or doing laundry, I may have to “swim” through the room or watch out for bubbling lava rivers as I am doing it. If they go outside, they explore and find creatures, sticks and rocks that will entertain them for hours. I won’t lie, they could easily spend that same time zoned out watching TV or playing video games. But when we set boundaries of how long they can watch and require free play time, their brains take over. It’s amazing! But, somewhere along the lines, something happened.
My kids are not typical. We travel often and expose them to history and science from an early age. They are curious about the world and we get excited to share the world with them. We talk to them like we would someone our age, we just may take the time to explain things they don’t have the background on. Because of that, they have always known more and interacted with people differently than kids their own age. That doesn’t translate well into the education world. I struggled with my oldest constantly being labeled a behavior problem because he’d finish his work and wouldn’t want to do the busy work or sit quietly and wait. I was told he had ADHD and needed medication by a doctor that refused to work with us on behaviors or help him deal with the loss of a close family member that happened at the same time as a behavior change. I became an educator when he was in 4th grade because I loved reading and wanted to share that love and its realistic applications with kids before they were permanently put off from it. He made it through high school, did well, and is nearly done with college and starting to work in the career field he loves. He never revived the love of reading that was slowly taken from him because of required reading that was only ever applied to tests or essay writing. He never really learned in an academic sense how to apply what he read, so he struggled with study skills because, with standardized testing, there is no studying-it’s all about testing technique and anticipating what the question wants you to show you know and then choosing that. Testing isn’t even about right and wrong answers, it’s about the most correct or accurate choice based on what the test creator thought. I once read about an interview of an author who had an excerpt used in a standardized test that asked students what the author was most likely feeling when they wrote it and the author that wrote it couldn’t even choose from the answers provided. How do we prepare kids for that? More importantly, how do we support that notion that standardized tests can accurately measure what was learned that year when they have never had a real chance to apply, process and reapply to a proficient level beyond an hour a day?
So, back to my youngest and his test scores. He has been on a steady decline as a “proficient” reader since starting in kindergarten. Yes, his grammar and spelling are a struggle, but no one really uses formal language anywhere except on a test, so can we really blame kids for this? Especially since, having taught reading and English myself, I know how little time is made available to teach it to the point of automaticity in their daily use, and those that do use proper grammar are often chastised for how they talk. But the other part is that the test is based on fiction reading. My kid is a non-fiction junkie. He may not be able to tell you the plot sequence of Charlotte’s Web or Harold and the Purple Crayon, but ask him about animals, nature, geology, or robots, and he will dazzle you with what he knows and can create. He used to love fiction but he can’t use the information, so it is a fight to get him to read it unless he discovers a new series that draws him in for a while (shout out to the good librarians that talk to kids and make this happen!) The test doesn’t align with my kid’s skills in this grade because he has different interests. That means he will be pulled from an enrichment class where he builds, creates and learns social skills to get remedial training on analyzing fiction reading. I don’t remember the last time that knowledge was useful in real life—trying to decide if Janice would ever get to reconnect with Jason doesn’t count, does it?
So now I am faced with the challenging decision. Do I penalize my kid and take away his enjoyable reading to make him read as a chore, further perpetuating a hatred for institutional learning but reinforcing that, if he doesn’t do his best it has consequences? Do I devalue the institution and tell him it doesn’t matter? Do I opt out from testing which puts more work on his teacher to develop a portfolio so that he can be promoted—and in a district that doesn’t even recognize opting out as a legitimate option, potentially impacting my career as an educator. Do I sacrifice our disposable income to pay for private school, even though most are caving to testing for the sake of public funding or capsize as a result of a lack of money? Do I sacrifice my career and family’s lifestyle to home school him myself? I honestly don’t know the right answer and I feel like the fate of his entire future rests on how I decide to handle this decision right now in his 3rd grade year. He wants to be a scientist and inventor when he grows up. To me, that is a field where creativity and a foundation on real world knowledge would be quite useful. But that is also a field that requires higher education and many more tests. How do I teach my darling 8-year-old to “play the game” to get where he wants in life without taking away the innocence and excitement about the world around him?
If you got to this point thinking I had an answer, I don’t. I think I lucked out with my oldest. But we did reach the point of having to teach him to “play the game” and it scares me we will have to do the same. I remember starting seeds in my kitchen for a garden and then transferring them to the beds once they sprouted and it was time to plant. I had one carrot seedling struggling and was not as big as the rest, but I planted it. At harvest time, I pulled up all the carrots, including the “runt” that never really took off. Turns out that, even though it looked puny and weak and probably would have been pulled if I had to thin the beds, it had the best-looking carrots with the most flavor out of all of them. If we rely on testing each year to tell us how our kids are measuring up, they may never live up to their potential. I fear that kids like mine that are the outliers and think and do differently will be thinned out and never let to reach their chance to shine because they won’t realize they can. I want my kid to realize he can, and to help others shine, as well. So, if you are a parent that is living through these same things, realize that you are not alone—many of us have this experience. We may make respond well to the situation, we may choose poorly and not. Do the best you can for your kid but let them live with their choices. But that’s a topic for another post.