Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Testing, Testing, 1-2-3
The other day the school sent home a form we had to fill out for both kids as part of the Second Grade MCPS “Gifted and Talented” Screening process. It was an odd collection of questions, and you had to rate your child based on how often you had observed a particular behavior or trait (i.e. gets very focused on one particular activity – frequently, often, never, etc.). It seemed hard to believe that this form had much to do with anything so I stuck it in the mail basket of doom for a while and tried to ignore it, but ultimately forced myself to fill it out the day before the deadline. Ranking your kids on anything is NOT fun, but try ranking twins side by side on a bizarre set of questions and you’ll get some real mother-guilt heartburn. I ended up filling it out at midnight, in a locked bathroom, while obsessively checking that the kids were asleep. I know, I need some professional help.
Then there is the label for the program that is the reason for the form in the first place – “Gifted and Talented.” Seriously, who came up with that one? I had to laugh out loud because it reflects a real schizophrenia within the school system, and maybe educators in general, as to how and/or when kids should be “labeled” and what to label them. On the one hand, MCPS conducts this stealth math (and sometimes reading) tracking system, beginning as early as Kindergarten, where they start grouping the kids by their supposed ability – first within the classroom and then ultimately by reshuffling the kids for those particular subjects. But they don’t really want the parents to know that they are doing this, and they REALLY don’t want the kids to figure it out. In fact, we were expressly instructed by the teachers NOT to discuss it. So if your kid asks you why they go to “so and so” for math, and their friend doesn’t (or vice-versa), you end up doing this whole dance and shuffle while attempting to avoid the very question your kid is asking you.
But come the end of second grade, and suddenly there is this test, and if your kid aces this test then they are TA DAH, Gifted and Talented, Capital G, Capital T. And, of course, this is Montgomery County so we all secretly or not so secretly think our kids are G&T, right?, and heaven forbid the test proves us wrong. (Although of course, there is the fallback, well my kid is not a good test-taker). And what is the grand prize for beings so fahbulous? Why, you get to go to a “special” school with all the other G&T kids where you will be more “challenged” and you don’t have to keep slumming with the “regular” kids.
But how do you reconcile the G&T moniker with the bunches of studies that show that praising an innate character -- such as smartness or goodness – in a kid, rather than effort, is self-defeating? These studies concluded that children who are constantly praised as being “smart,” or I would imagine, “gifted and talented,” have less self-esteem and, in fact, start to be afraid to take risks for fear that it will prove that they are not as smart as everyone else thinks they are. Whereas encouraging hard work and effort prompts more of the same. (Here is a link to a good article summarizing these studies = http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/).
The kids took the TerraNova standardized test a week or 2 ago. The first day, as I was ushering them out the door and giving a kiss goodbye, I encouraged them to have fun and to "do your best." I decided I didn't like that so the next day, I bid them goodbye with a "try your hardest" and both kids responded much better to that, coming home excited to report how the test had gone. Words carry a lot of power, especially coming from parents.
So for now at least, phrases that are banned in our house include "you are so smart" or "you are a good kid." Phrases that are encouraged in our house - you worked really hard on that; you gave that your best effort and you got to the right answer. But I also think that no matter how hard I try to navigate a good path on one thing, I am just going to screw something else up with my kids. It is always easy to blame parents for everything, right? Wait, never mind, don’t answer that.