“But we just don’t know the words!” This was C---‘s protestation on Wednesday, as we went over yet another round of benchmark testing.
Perceptive as always, C--- recognized that he had missed a slew of problems not because he didn’t understand the concept but because he didn’t know “the words,” the specific language of the specific questions of this test. I know and C--- knows, and he knows that he knows, the big ideas of figurative language, synonyms and antonyms, roots and affixes. But he didn’t know what “steeples” are, he didn’t know that “immense” is more akin to “huge” than to “empty,” and he didn’t know that the root word “mobil” in “immobilize” meant “moving” rather than “starting.” So we tell C--- that he gets an F. Among the many things C--- knows, he also knows that he deserves better.
C--- is a brilliant and hard-working kid. Last year, he arrived in February and struggled with our expectations that he would complete his homework and focus on lessons. Summer was inexplicably good to him and he came to school a new student. I call him C--- 2.0, a nickname he enjoys when he doesn’t stop to remember that he has to be cool. In September, seeing the change in C---, I told The Man that this would be the Year of C---. It has been. Beyond just attending, his hand is incessantly in the air. A newcomer four years ago, he is now reading voraciously, at a fourth grade level. He is bringing in homework and doing it well.
C--- is the kind of school-loving, inquisitive and hubristic kid who would drive me crazy, if he didn’t remind me so much of myself. But where tests and grades validated and reinforced my efforts, they invalidate and undermine C---‘s. I tell my kids when test questions are “bad” or “unfair” and I explain how the test-makers try to trick them, but I know that is not enough to truly reassure them.
We subscribe to the well-known mantra at our school: Work hard, get smart. We chant it at weekly rallies and emblazon it on our sweatshirts, but we let our tests belie that simple contract. They work hard, but still we fail them. Our kids hold up their end of the bargain and we don’t. So I guess it should be no surprise to me when, a day after the test, C--- is caught making “Kick me” stickers under the supervision of a sub.
I pulled him aside after-school and lay into him. With his eyes tearing up, I told him how disappointed I was. He chokingly tried to explain that P--- had convinced him to do it. I tried to explain to him how there would always be people there to lead him into trouble and that he had to choose better. At the end of the conversation, I rhetorically asked C--- if it was going to happen again. He replied honestly, “Maybe.” I was stunned by his candor and asked why. He said, “P--- will be there, and maybe I’ll be able to say no and maybe I won’t.” Now it was my turn to suffer for the words. I had the concept, bad friends and bad decisions equal a bad life. But how to persuasively articulate that to a ten-year old? I failed over the words, just like C---.
Reflecting on it now, I realize that there’s nothing I could have said. More than anything else, C--- is going to listen to my actions over my words. My actions showed C--- that his hard work was rewarded with a big fat F. P---‘s showed him that no work was met with the guaranteed esteem of his friends. How many times is any kid going to choose the F?
We all want validation, kids most of all. They’d rather it came from us, but they’ll take it from anywhere they can. We can beat out the bullies and brats, but not by handing out unwarranted and inaccurate Fs. I’m all for high academic standards and utterly opposed to effort grades, but we must stop penalizing students who are still learning the language. There’s one word for tests that don’t recognize when students actually do understand the material being assessed: failure. So it’s a question of words: Are our students failing their tests or are our tests failing their students?