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What Standardized Tests Can't Tell Me About My Son

Earlier this week, I asked my 9-year-old son what his teachers had told him and his classmates about the standardized tests they’d be taking for the next week-and-a-half.

He looked at me with wide, serious eyes. “They said it’s going to be one of the biggest tests of the year,” he said. “Even bigger than the one we took in the Fall.”

Shrugging and returning to his bowl of oatmeal, his seriousness all but ceased. He didn’t seem too worried about the tests in the moment. His test-induced stress had come earlier in the day when he was trying to wrap his head around a complex practice test question about honey and mason jars and long division and someone named Jian. Once he solved the problem, he was fine.

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Though he wasn’t too stressed about his upcoming tests, I was. I still am. And my stress has nothing to do with politics or polemics or misconceptions about the Common Core and its mission. Instead, it has everything to do with how those tests will measure my child, and how that measurement threatens to loom large over every other one of his skills, characteristics and strengths.

I’m not exactly the white suburban mom worrying that the current tests might show that my child isn’t as brilliant as I think he is. He might be brilliant. He might not be. His scores might be high. They might not. What worries me, however, is that my child, his teachers or—gulp—I will come to see his test results as the primary measurement of all of his strengths. Not just the narrow set of academic strengths evaluated by standardized tests.

I’ll admit that I probably put too much stock and worry into these tests.

“What if his scores are lower than expected, and then I start to lower my overall evaluation of him?” I’ve asked myself. What if he doesn’t do well? Does that mean that he is failing? That his school and teachers are failing him? What if he’s not gifted? What if he is gifted? What if he’s average? Or below average? What might these results say about his future? His ability to go to college? To get a job? How might seeing his test results affect his self-worth?

What might these test results say about him?

I’ll admit that I probably put too much stock and worry into these tests. Nonetheless, I think that almost any parent can identify with the stress of having their child evaluated or tested. It’s all too easy to mistake test results for a permanent, future-shaping claim about all that a child is or ever will be.

As I pondered this stress after my brief conversation with my son, I was reminded of a sign posted by the front office of the preschool that he and his two younger brothers have attended. The sign is conspicuous, simple and clear. And it has often reminded me that academic performance is only one part of a person’s skills and achievements.

The sign’s heading is simple: Personal Qualities Not Measured by Tests.

The qualities listed below this heading are simply brilliant: Creativity. Critical thinking. Compassion. Sense of reality. Sense of wonder. Resilience. Leadership. Empathy. And over a dozen more.

They’re all qualities just as important as academic performance. In some cases, they are even more important.

Remembering this sign and all its wisdom helped me to put all my stress into perspective.

His standardized test results will only reflect one part of him. They won't define him.

My problem—the root of my stress—is my own overestimation of the test results’ meaning. They won’t say everything about my child; they’ll only say a few things about a small part of him. They won’t predict his future, but they will identify academic areas where he might need additional challenges or support.

I don’t need him to be perfect. I don’t need him to be the best at everything or the best out of everyone. I don’t want him to think that he is the most special snowflake in the universe.

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I just need him to be the best “him” that he can be. If not in math, then in compassion. If not in writing, then in curiosity. If not in reading, then in resilience.

His standardized test results will only reflect one part of him. They won't define him.

Once I solved this problem, I was fine.

Image via Kristen Oganowski

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