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Don't test well in school? Don't I know it!

Posted: 2005-09-30

This commentary appeared in the MCAS-loving Boston Globe, September 29, 2005. Thank you, Beverly Beckham, for pointing out that One voice, one test, one label can destroy a child.

Thank you for pointing out that We are measuring the wrong things in our children.

A sign of our times: Underneath this article online is an ad promising Reading Worksheets Here
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It was called the ''The 200 Club" and to be a member was simple: All you had to do was graduate at the bottom of your class. There were about 40 of us in this self-appointed, self-denigrating group in May 1964. I remember worrying that we would be called up to graduate in order of class rank.

D's in geometry and algebra had landed me in this club, not my homeroom teacher's public prediction that I would never reach college -- and if ''miraculously" I did, I would flunk out in a semester.

There were no MCAS exams in 1964. But there was, of course, labeling.

Winners and losers. Doers and dreamers. Kids who were headed somewhere and kids who were barely scraping by.

For the first six years of school, I had been one of the kids who was headed somewhere. Top of the class. Straight A's. Gold stars on all my papers.

And then in seventh grade I entered a new school in a new town. And there I was, alone at the blackboard, unable to diagram a sentence or parse a verb or understand the simple rule that factor times factor equals product.

Humiliation came daily, along with the underlying message that I lacked the essential knowledge of every other kid in my class. I didn't get gold stars anymore. My parents said it didn't matter. I knew it did.

One voice, one test, one label can destroy a child.

Only half of Massachusetts fourth-graders were deemed ''proficient or above" on the MCAS English exam this year. Only 39 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or above in math. MCAS scores are broadcast on the news, headlined in the papers, highlighted and discussed from one school year to the next. When kids fail, their teachers, their parents, their schools, and their communities are all judged to be lacking.

Each MCAS report brings back those teenage memories. Each year, more children and towns are labeled losers.

On report cards, a teacher can write, ''Kate is a joy to have in class. Danny gets along well with his peers. Megan is a great artist. Sarah is good at sharing."

And a child and his parents get not just encouragement from this. But truth.

Because some of the most important things -- patience, kindness, loyalty, curiosity, dependability, steadfastness, grit, wonder -- cannot be measured on an exam.

People have long looked for predictors to success. Score well and you'll do well. Study hard, go the best schools, and you'll have a good life.

But what exactly is a good life? Is knowledge really everything? I know, therefore I am better than someone who doesn't know?

I came home recently after a bad day and there was a gift at my door. The giver never went to college. Never won an academic award. Doesn't have her name on a corporate door.

She is like most of us. She does what she can. She sees a need and fills it. She goes out of her way to help a friend. ''I wanted to put a smile on your face," she said when I called to thank her. ''I knew you needed to smile."

We are measuring the wrong things in our children because all of us are far more than the sum of our test scores.

A teacher told me I wouldn't get into college. But I did. And I didn't flunk out. I graduated. Taught school. Got a master's degree. And started to write.

I wanted to write long before I began. But I had a college professor who gave me E's and scrawled ''trite" on all my essays. And my essays were trite and they deserved E's.

But here's the thing. E's and F's and ''This is bad. This is terrible." don't help anyone. What helps is, ''Let me show you what you did wrong." Millie Potter, an editor at the Patriot Ledger, said this to me. And changed my life.

Encouragement is vital. And patience. And practice. Practice may not make perfect but if you practice anything enough you get better.

Today's teachers and kids practice all year for MCAS. Is this really the best use of their time? Shouldn't the primary goal of public education be educating children to want to learn, not to ace an exam?

They call it assessment but it's judgment. They call it reform but it isn't. To me, with four-decade-old memories still fresh, the MCAS pigeonholes children, teachers, and entire communities. And to me, there is nothing new -- or productive -- about this.

Beverly Beckham, who lives in Canton, can be reached at bevbeckham@aol.com.

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