Sometimes education tests breed unnecesary fretting

As I sorted mail last week, my mind was on ice cream. It’s our tradition to celebrate the end of each school year with banana splits and I had two days to stock the freezer with flavors to feed the celebratory appetites of my kids and whatever friends they brought home.

By June, no one wants to think about school so I set aside the school district envelope addressed “to the parents of” one of my children while I tossed most of the mail straight into the recycling, unread as usual.

Anymore, the postman delivers mostly advertisements – offers of satellite television, dental care and new cars that fail to entice any attention with their red all-caps declarations and liberal use of exclamation points.

There weren’t any exclamation points in the school district correspondence, but after I read it and the attached standardized test scores I wanted to shout, “I told you so!”

It took me back several years, when I opened another letter and perused test scores, followed shortly by correspondence informing us that our child would participate in a reading intervention program.

The grayscale graph showing our child’s current proficiency level in reading and writing reminded me of the other report, with the scores color-coded red, like an advertisement shouting for attention. Failure to read in first grade is serious business.

If I could go back in time, I’d say this. “It’s going to be OK. Your kid is going to learn to read and read well. Don’t worry. Follow his interests and focus on how much fun learning can be. That is far more important than how many words he can read in 60 seconds.”

I’d tell myself that not all kids develop at the same pace and sometimes the school’s timetables for assessable learning do more damage than good if they’re ill-fitted to an individual student.

We learned that the hard way.

The “pull-out” program designed to help our child was so boring it made him hate reading. Regularly tested, he showed no improvement and each passing week his spirit dimmed. He began to believe he was stupid, as if someone had stapled a dunce cap to his head.

I knew better. Though he struggled to read “the cat sat on the mat,” he could close his eyes and recite the tedious verbiage from memory.

On the advice of my wonderful mother-in-law, Penny, who taught second grade for about 30 years, I went to the school and removed our child from the phonics-based reading intervention program. The specialist was horrified. While I signed the forms, she expressed her fears that he’d fall further behind.

He didn’t, but it took several years before he caught up and a full five years before he finally realized he wasn’t stupid.

During that time we researched learning styles and creative teaching techniques but primarily focused on undoing the damage and restoring his love of learning.

Instead of forcing him to do reading homework he hated, we let him check out difficult nonfiction books that were filled with pictures alongside difficult words like fuselage, aerodynamic and jet-propelled.

We also read “Leo the Late Bloomer,” a book Penny used to read to children who didn’t learn at the same pace as some of their peers. Neither did Leo the Lion, but his mother didn’t worry because she knew he’d get it when he was ready.

Unfortunately, today’s school system is a breeding ground for worry. Teachers are stretched thin in classrooms overcrowded with kids who have a wide range of learning styles, abilities and backgrounds.

It’s impossible, given those constraints, to assess and adapt to each child’s unique needs, yet educators face enormous pressure to produce measureable progress and meet standardized test score benchmarks. It’s as if education has an ominous time bomb ticking in the background.

That pressure inevitably spills over to the students, who have less and less time to move, create and become inspired as recess, art and music are cut in favor of more core curriculum.

Yes, intervention can be a good thing and there are kids who need extra help, especially kids who can’t get it outside of school. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if my son didn’t have a grandmother who had wise advice based on years of experience. Would he have eventually earned the test scores I opened last week? Or would he have given up, like so many of the kids caught in the same system?

Contact correspondent Jill Barville by email at jbarville@msn.com.


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