Thursday, December 02, 2004

Standardized failure

Yesterday was a conference day at my daugther's school, and once again I made the rounds of her teachers and heard how much everybody loves her and how faithfully she does her homework and projects. A couple of the teachers mentioned that they're starting to see her comprehension problems — hey, and it only took an IEP and three months of school! — especially when she's called on to come up with an answer on the spot. Spontaneous exhibition of knowledge is a pretty big weakness for her, just as organization and dogged effort behind the scenes is a pretty big strength. I've been trying to push her teachers into an "All Kinds of Minds" sort of accommodation for my girl, whereby they give her extra work that plays to her strengths to make up for the things that don't, but "extra credit" seems to be an unpopular concept; I guess when you're a teacher who has so much trouble getting so many of your students to do even the basic work, you're loathe to set yourself up for more disappointment. They do count the work she struggles with for a little less of her grade, and the work she does well with for a little more, and as long as that adds up to passing I can live with it.

There's no room for that kind of understanding and adjustment when it comes to standardized testing, though, and that's something of a problem. My daughter is in a class this quarter called "Test Best," which focuses on teaching kids who struggle on standardized tests some techniques to improve their chances. She can certainly use that, and I'm happy she's getting it. But she's never going to do well on standardized tests, I don't care how many tricks we teach her. Standardized tests are all about "on the spot." She does well when she can study and think and consider and plan and anticipate — skills that are actually pretty useful in the real world — but ask her to read something cold and process it within a time limit, and her brain just stops cold. I had a good long talk with the "Test Best" teacher, who explained what happens to kids who keep failing the tests: their educational world becomes narrower and narrower, as the number of classes that focus on language arts and math increases and all electives and other areas of endeavor fall away. "No Child Left Behind" is all well and good, and I've certainly had my frustrations with special education that leads nowhere, but at some point don't we leave some children behind in the land of all testing, all the time, while their peers are moving on to broader knowledge and experience? And isn't there ever any room to acknowledge that there are valuable skill sets that just can't be measured by testing? I'm not sure there's a really good workable fix here, but I'm pretty sure something's broken.

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