"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Educational Poverty of the Elite

"Adolescence in the modern age has already turned into one long season of standardized tests."

I came across this cute little piece in the
The New York Times and wanted to share it with Schools Matter readers. This mother's lamentations on the latest test craze for 8th graders really isn't really cute at all, rather it is a pathetic commentary on those who get to play the game and can afford to pay for all those prep classes and even more insidiously continue to perpetuate a bankrupt system of education that is going to haunt the next generation until someone, somewhere in a position of power becomes outraged enough to stop the madness.

However, Michelle Slatalla does deserve kudos for sharing her woes -- but we won't be throwing any pity parties for her or her 13-year-old daughter who is likely to pass the latest test with flying colors. It's the fate of the millions of other children growing up in poverty whose fates are really laid out because they are being born into an educational system that is blatantly discriminatory and unconstitutional -- dooming them to the failure associated with the other kind of poverty.


My Child’s Fate, All Laid Out by 13

THE other day at breakfast, when my husband read that the SAT people are planning to expand their standardized test empire into middle schools with an exam for eighth-graders, he became alarmed.

“Don’t get any ideas,” he said, looking up from the newspaper.

“Clementine can handle it,” I assured him, smearing peanut butter onto the sandwich I make for her lunch most days.

“I know she can,” he said, casting a meaningful look at her across the table. “It’s you I worry about. No coaching.”

“What makes you think I would try to do that?” I asked indignantly as I precisely sliced the crust off the bread.

“You have a history,” he said darkly.

That’s so unfair. O.K., maybe there was a time, when my two older daughters were in the throes of taking all the College Board’s other tests — the Preliminary SAT, the SAT, the SAT II subject tests and the Advanced Placement exams — when I went a little overboard.

If I had it to do over, I probably wouldn’t have piped Spanish-language refresher tapes into anyone’s room while she slept. And maybe I also went too far that time when I was trying to slip obscure vocabulary words into everyday dinner conversation and asked my oldest daughter to “please pass the comestible peas.” But I like to think that was a special situation; my older daughters were taking life-or-death college entrance exams.

The new ReadiStep test, however, supposedly has nothing to do with college admissions. When it starts next year, it is supposed to measure if students’ math, reading and writing skills are developing well enough to handle rigorous high school classes.

In fact, when I called Kristopher John, executive director for college readiness at the College Board, to ask for some sample ReadiStep questions, he assured me that in this case, test prep was unnecessary.

The test, he said, is intended to help teachers and school districts evaluate “how their students have performed.” Armed with that knowledge, the teachers “can better prepare them,” he added.

That may be true. But adolescence in the modern age has already turned into one long season of standardized tests. And the way I see it, with ReadiStep the whole college admissions process could now start even younger, at age 13. According to the College Board, scores on the ReadiStep will predict how the same student will score in high school on the Preliminary SAT. It’s kind of like the Educational Domino Theory: the ReadiStep predicts the PSAT, the PSAT predicts a student’s SAT scores, and SAT scores get you into college. Or not.

Of course I know that graduating from a “good” college does not predict later success. Some of the most successful people in the world — Steve Jobs and Bill Gates come to mind — were dropouts. But at least they got into pretty selective schools.

If this whole ReadiStep movement catches on, it won’t be long before parents start worrying about — and maybe hiring tutors for — their 13-year-olds. And the next thing we know, the College Board people will be inventing a Pre-ReadiStep test for seventh graders, to predict ReadiStep scores.

When I phoned Robert A. Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest, a nationwide advocacy group critical of standardized tests, he said that was a plausible scenario.

“Eventually maybe we should just all use our babies’ Apgar scores at birth to predict college readiness,” he said.

“That would only work if you could coach unborn children before they had to take the Apgar test,” I said.

“Maybe you can,” he said. “They sell those classical music tapes that pregnant moms are supposed to play.”

“It’s too late for that in my case,” I said regretfully. Maybe the parents’ SAT tests could be considered a predictor of the fetus’s Apgar scores? My head felt as if it were going to explode.

I needed a way to control the situation. For that is my job as a mother.

“I was wondering, just hypothetically, if you think it would be possible to coach a student for the ReadiStep test,” I said.

“I’m sure some people could — you’ve probably heard they’re called helicopter moms,” Mr. Schaeffer said.

“Yes, I think I may have heard my husband use that term,” I said, gently persisting. “But how, in theory, would a helicopter mom go about this?”

Mr. Schaeffer considered the question. “All you’d have to do would be to get an old copy of the PSAT,” he said, “because ReadiStep probably will be based on old PSAT questions — like the PSAT is based on old SAT questions.” High school guidance counselors have copies. You can also find them online.

Perhaps he heard me typing, because he added, hastily: “But I would not urge you to do that. That kind of behavior only encourages the hysteria that already surrounds the college admissions test process.”

“Yes, I think I may have heard my husband say the same thing at breakfast the other morning,” I said.

Suddenly it dawned on me: “And he was right.”

After I hung up, I vowed to relax. I needed to get some perspective about this whole test mess. After all, my children had turned out fine so far, despite being deprived of Mozart in the womb. And after spending the last five years watching my older daughters ride the harrowing roller coaster of the college admissions process, I could use a break from it, too. Otherwise, why would I have waited six years to have a third child?

My plan worked pretty well for the next few days, and breakfast once again became a peaceful meal in our house.

Until one morning early last week, when Clementine started to pack her lunchbox.

“Mom?” Clementine asked, pausing to examine the sandwich I had made

“Yes?” I said.

“Why did you cut my peanut butter sandwich into the shape of an isosceles triangle?”

“That’s to make it easier for you to calculate the area of its surface that’s covered in jelly,” I said.

My husband sighed.

E-mail: Slatalla@nytimes.com.

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