Fighting for the DeLoreans

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He was a student in my class ten years ago. He was at the top of my class and at the top of a number of his other classes. I remember him in part because once he declared to me, “I’m smart.”

He was smart. He was also the product of a school district that was struggling to produce strong test numbers. As a result, his test scores were not at all exceptional. Those scores were good for his district, but he remained in the middle of the Illinois pack. Ten years ago, those scores were not the focus of DeLorean’s life, though. They were an annual event at which he did pretty well, at least compared to the other kids in his classes, an event that was still  pretty much background noise in 2005. Despite having only somewhat above average Illinois test scores, DeLorean could feel smart. He could base his self assessment on his position within his classes.

The DeLoreans of today are not nearly so lucky.  They are taking more tests and they are taking them more often. As the year goes on, they will have their test scores rubbed in their faces over and over again. They will be told exactly what they received. They may be asked to set targets for improvement for the next set of tests. They will be given more than ample opportunity to examine their position compared to other students taking the test, both in class and across the state.

I recognize a few advantages to battering our students with numbers. Some students do benefit from learning their status. Some students try harder when they are given clear targets to hit. But I am sure that others are giving up the fight all over America.

At the very least, they are losing that sense of specialness the DeLorean carried with him throughout his school day. When the major focus of your school year becomes the numbers you produce and those numbers put you in the 60th percentile somewhere — which may be a great result in some of our lower-scoring school districts — then suddenly a boy or girl who used to feel at the top get a reality check, a reality check that places that kid below one third of all other state test takers.

The question that hardly ever seems to hit the radar is this: What are the effects of all these test numbers on kids, especially kids in our lower-scoring school districts?

We used to send the state standardized test and other scores to parents in an envelope. We never discussed those results in class. Parents got to decide what they told their kids and how much they told their kids. This year, though, my principal had us share our benchmark test score results with students. We then had students set targets for improvement for the next set of benchmark tests. As I said, I believe this approach benefited a number of kids.

However, others ended up feeling stupid. I feel stupid even writing this down, but I need to observe that feeling stupid is demotivating. I also need to observe that all kids are different. Setting the bar high makes some kids work harder. Others simply walk off the field.