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Why parenting sucks… May 25, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, math, teaching, younger son.
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Now that the school year is over, I can finally discuss one thing that’s been driving me nuts for the past couple weeks.

Most of you know that I’ve been volunteering to work with a group in my son’s class that’s slightly ahead in math.  The teacher was doing some grouping to help the kids who were struggling and more or less leaving the other ones to do “enrichment activities” for an additional twenty minutes outside of normal math time every day.  I was going in once a week to help with the advanced group, although that evolved into reading math stories to the whole class every other week.

One day was very odd.  As I sat down to work with the ‘advanced’ group, the younger son started talking.  He started explaining addition and multiplicative identities to the other kids, but it was obvious they didn’t know what he was talking about.  At first, I tried to get back to what I’d planned on discussing, but I also didn’t want to make him feel like he was being shushed.  So when the other kids started this eye-roll, “here he goes again” type of body language,  I tried to augment what he was saying.  I wondered how often this type of thing was happening.  I felt bad about the whole thing because the kids seemed interested when I was talking about it.  However, here’s the younger son, feeling like he can talk to these other kids about some of the math he was doing at home, and they don’t understand and are blowing him off.

Unfortunately, I know how he feels because this happens to me as an adult, almost always when I’m talking to my kids’ teachers.  I have always gotten the feeling that they think I don’t understand children or how they work.  I obviously am just one of those parents that’s overestimating my child’s intelligence and pushing him beyond  his ability.  If my children really were ‘gifted’ (always said with a sneer, if the dreaded word is even spoken at all), then they wouldn’t behave the way they do.  (I think this means they expect my kids to sit still and be compliant.)  And I’m most definitely not competent enough to handle educating my own child.

In fact, it happened again very recently.  The younger son’s end of year test scores came back, and all of the focus was on one subtest where he’s “right in with his peers”.  That is, a full year ahead of national norms.  They’re very concerned about his progress because of that subtest and wanted him to spend next year in the normal classroom to ‘get him back on track’.  (Because working a year behind his current achievement level helps him how????)  Very conveniently, they ignore the subtest where he’s four years ahead…and the other two or three where he’s still very far ahead of his classmates, as well.  They use that one subtest as evidence that I’m doing a lousy job teaching him math at home.

The good news is that they’re going to let him continue to use his current math curriculum, only he will be doing it at school in the fall.  I have a few reservations (mostly that he won’t get the help he needs), but I have hopes that just maybe they’ll start believing me.  I know it’s hard to believe a kid can go from getting teary-eyed about getting subtraction problems wrong to gleefully manipulating fractions and decimals in a single year.  On the other hand, I am pretty sure he’s said things that would make them realize he knows some of this stuff…but I suspect they just blew it off or attributed it to his “overactive imagination”.

Fed up with standardized tests May 19, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, teaching, Uncategorized.
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When I was a kid, I remember taking Iowa Basics tests every couple years.  I remember this because I was both stunned and disappointed.  I was usually impressed because my grade equivalencies placed me at least three grades ahead of then current placement with the gap widening as time went on.  The disappointment was because nothing ever came of it.  I sort of assumed that everyone I was going to school with must have similar scores because I was kept with the same people, in the same grade, without even so much an acknowledgement.

Well, okay, there was an acknowledgement – there were usually comments about how my math computation scores were so much lower than everything else.  (This is what led me to believe, for many years, that I was bad at math.)

My kids haven’t used Iowa Basics, and I find this very disappointing.  In a move that I can only assume is a result of No Child Left Behind (or, as I affectionately like to refer to it, the “Lake Wobegon Law” because everyone must be above average), there has been a shift away from tests like Stanford Achievement or Iowa Basics to NWEA Map testing.

The only way I can describe this is useless info that’s providing a moving target.  The test provides percentiles and approximate ranges for competencies in various subfields.  It is frequently renormed.  In many respects, it’s the same as any other standardized test.

My beef is that, as far as I can tell, the only purpose of the test is to see how your student(s) compare with the rest of your district or nationally.  On the other hand, I will say that it’s not the only one that does this.  However, it seems like there are a lot of schools moving this way, and I see it as a huge detriment.  The reason is that I don’t think you can make decisions about a child based strictly on their performance compared to a norm.  However, that’s exactly what teachers want to do.  They see an area of relative weakness in a child and want to hold them to that level for all of their abilities.  I am left to ponder why it is they never want the child to be working at the level where they are capable and make an attempt to bring the weak areas up to par with the strong areas.  Of course, if you have nothing to determine where they’re actually achieving, it’s hard to implement that type of education.

This leads me to wonder: how does a child working at age level help them to develop skills above age level?  If you’re teaching a child stuff s/he already knows, aren’t you just holding them back?

The complaints I received about my ‘lousy’ math computation scores are one example of this.  I have several tests showing this problem which constantly elicited comments from teachers about how I was poor at math.  I get the impression that they looked for personal weaknesses but never really made the connection that my average was different than most of the other kids.  Their solution, therefore, was to have me work on more computation at grade level.

Scores that only consist of a percentage relative to norms tell you is that one’s performance relative to everyone else may be an area of weakness.  It doesn’t tell you, however, where you’re really achieving.  It’s a bit different if you have a grade equivalency sitting next to the norms.  It turns out that my ‘lousy’ math computation scores implied that my computation was equivalent to the average child two grades ahead of me.  And it should be fairly obvious that if they wanted to me to be achieving more strongly in computation, they would have been giving me more computation at 2-3 years ahead of grade level.  Unfortunately, that’s not what happened, and most often, it’s still not.  It’s a lot harder to dismiss a child’s achievements when you have a solid basis of comparison (a kid two or three years older) than some vague percentile.  Those percentiles don’t give teachers a true picture of achievement; how many teachers have frequency tables for a normal distribution sitting nearby? My impression is that it leaves them only feeling that when a child is at a very high level, the child is learning and thriving in their current environment.  They have the mistaken impression that the child is having their needs met, when in reality, the child could be seriously underperforming relative to their potential.  Likewise, they may get the impression that a child is struggling but fail to realize that it’s because they lack basics from prior years.

I therefore would like tests to go back to giving grade equivalencies.  I think this illuminates the level of child achievement and gives teachers a better idea of what they are actually dealing with.  There is a good amount of research showing that teachers are actually some of the worst identifiers of children’s intellectual gifts, and taking away the frame of reference that grade equivalencies provide is going to make it worse for the child and parents or other advocates.

The magical standardized exams December 9, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, homeschooling, math, older son, science, societal commentary, teaching.
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I’ve been reading a lot of different takes on the whole fiasco of the Florida school board member with two MS degrees who failed the state’s 10th grade standardized test.  His name is Rick Roach.

While it doesn’t seem to be a popular view, I am agreeing with Roach: the test really doesn’t have anything to do with how people will fare in the real world.  I’d dare say that grades are probably a better predictor, although they have their flaws, too.  Students who do well in school tend to be those who read teachers well and know what they want.  They don’t have to be very bright to figure out how to keep teachers happy, follow the rules, and, in general, conform.  They stay organized, hand in their work, which was hopefully done well, and keep the people around them happy.  I hate to say it, but these are the skills that tend to help people at a job, not passing a standardized exam.

In my view, people who do well in life are those who are able to conform to the expectations of those around them OR those who follow their passions and work very hard at them.  I don’t believe that tests do much more than how well one takes tests.  And, to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure all the emphasis on getting kids up to speed in science, math, and reading is doing much good and may, in fact, be doing a significant amount of harm.

The reason I say this is the experience with my older son, who is now a sophomore in high school.  So let’s start out with a shocker: he got kicked out of school recently.  He was going part-time, but he wasn’t sufficiently interested and never made it a priority to be there.  This is the same kid who became so engrossed in studying US history that he passed both CLEP exams on the subject, earning him a full year of US history credits at most colleges…in 9th grade.

We decided we better start looking at how he’s going to get his degree, so I figured that since he’s almost 16, he can start prepping to take the GED.  For those of you who are unfamiliar, this is a high school equivalency exam, but you can’t take it until you turn 16.  It tests on reading, writing, science, social studies, and math.  While he has had a decent amount of algebra, he’s never had a formal science class except for one in 6th grade.  However, he passed the practice GED with no problems, meaning that he probably won’t even need to study before he can take the exam in a couple months.  He’s very happy about that because he doesn’t want to spend his time studying for that: he wants to study to take the macroeconomics CLEP instead.  The kid who doesn’t want to be bothered to make it to school on time will work his but off to study something he’s interested in.

I have a kid who is good at passing exams.  I don’t have a kid who is a conformist and understands the need to be places on time.  (Well, I think he understands…but he’s not going to make the effort unless he really cares about it.)  Unfortunately, I think his lack of conformity is going to hurt him a lot in life, probably more than his exam-taking ability will help him.  He’ll have an easy time earning his high school equivalency, but what good will this do him if he’s not going to be able to keep a job if he decides he’s not sufficiently interested in working?

I have also come to the realization that he really doesn’t need to know much math.  In fact, I think most people don’t.  Being a scientist, I use math day in and day out.  In my work as an engineer, I don’t use nearly as much math as you’d think.  In fact, like Roach said, I know a lot of people who don’t use math all that often.  A lot of those people are engineers.  A good chunk of engineering education involves teaching processes that invalidate the need for much higher level math.  Yes, a lot of it is a cookbook for boiling things down to high school algebra.  Now, the good engineers will have a conceptual understanding of what’s underlying those steps, and the really good engineers will understand it mathematically.  But realistically, most of what they learn in college, in terms of math, won’t be used.  And I say this as someone who is frustrated because I’ve had a lot of math and realize I’m forgetting much of it because I don’t use it.

Going back to the discussion on this emphasis toward pushing more math, science, and engineering hurting students, I’d have to say that there are a lot more kids like my son than people acknowledge.  Kids are going to be successful in life when they follow their passion.  I’ve seen kids who showed no motivation in classes go and learn the information taught in those classes because they wanted to work on something that required that information.  There is so much emphasis on establishing superiority in these academic areas (when we can’t even manage competency in most cases) that we’re not allowing kids a variety of experiences they need to find their interests.

Our education system provides no real motive for learning aside vague promises of getting a good job after high school.  I’m sure most students think that their job will be a lot like high school, which is probably not all that inspiring.  There is no real motivation for them to learn, their curiosity is damped, they’re never allowed to excel unless it’s in an area where our system is currently focusing.  And even then, bright kids are bored because they’re not really allowed to excel and dig into things on a deep level: they have to stay lock-step with kids who have no interest.

The whole ruse reminds me of Fahrenheit 451, where the whole society is distracted by notions of this or that trivial thing being important.  Our society is fixated on test scores and ‘competency’ in science and math and writing.  However, we’ve failed to pay attention to how and why kids really learn, and we’re delusional to think that competence in testing is the only indicator of who will succeed in life.

Of course, colleges will have you believe this, and there’s a huge industry surrounding making you believe that and providing you with more and more tests you’ll need to pass (for a sizable fee) despite the fact that grades are still the best predictor of college performance.  There’s also the politicians who are also convinced that this is the way to fix our country’s problems…most of whom benefit from the system as it is because their kids almost always end up as winners in the education race.  It also makes them look like they’re doing something substantial for education, which is why we have the No Child Left Behind legacy.

The gist of this is that most tests are assumed to be measuring things they aren’t measuring.  The SAT is not going to tell you if you are going to be successful in life.  It can’t even tell you that you are going to do well in college.  We are imbuing these tests with magical powers: they have become our Sorting Hat.  We believe in the magic of these exams to put people in some sort of ‘succeed at life’ or ‘fail at life’ category because it’s easier than looking at the realities of how our educational system is truly dysfunctional.


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