The Perfect Test

By Lisa Hartwig

Lisa is the mother of 3 gifted children and lives outside of San Francisco.

At my son’s kindergarten parent/teacher conference, his teacher played a game with my husband and me. She put 3 marbles on the table and asked us to close our eyes. When we opened them, we saw 2 marbles. She asked us how many she was holding in her hand. When we told her “one”, she repeated the game with 4 marbles.

Our son’s teacher told us she played this game with each student until the child no longer gave the correct answer. All the children in her class stopped at 10 marbles, except my son. She played with him until she had 20 marbles on the table. Then she stopped. She told us that he was clearly very good at math.
I left the meeting feeling proud of my son’s talent and satisfied with the teacher’s assessment. My husband wasn’t.

“Why didn’t she keep going until he gave the wrong answer?”

From that moment, “good at math” wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to know his limits. Then I wanted him to learn something new. Thus began my search for the perfect test: the one that would convince his teachers that he needed something different from the rest of the class.

I started with an IQ test. That was a terrible idea. I learned that he not only had exceptional perceptual reasoning abilities, but he also had excellent verbal abilities. When I shared this information with the principal, she was wary. What kind of parent gives her 5 year old child an IQ test? Clearly, I was one of “those” parents. I not only complicated my search, I acquired a label that would follow me throughout my son’s elementary school years.

The psychologist who administered the IQ test also gave him the Wide Range Achievement Test. His Reading and Arithmetic achievement scores placed him in 3rd Grade. I approached his 1st grade teacher with these scores and asked if she could give him 3rd grade level work. She was sympathetic to my request. She thought she could deliver an appropriate reading curriculum. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the resources to deliver a 3rd grade math curriculum in her class and the school would not allow him to sit in a 3rd grade classroom.

I decided to make alternate arrangements for math. I enrolled my son in an online math program through the Educational Program for Gifted Youth (“EPGY”). He worked on the computer at home and brought the homework assignments to school. Finally, I understood what my son knew because I saw it on the computer screen every day.

I remained optimistic when my son started 2nd grade. I gave up on the advanced reading curriculum, but I continued to advocate for accelerated math. I doubled my efforts. My son took the Sequential Test for Educational Progress (STEP) for mathematics computation. The test detailed scores in reading and whole numbers, fractions, decimals, percentages, denominate numbers and algebraic manipulation in math. He scored at a 5th grade level. Armed with the STEP results and the completed EPGY math curriculum, I tried again.

His 2nd grade teacher was hostile. Through her behavior and comments, she delivered two messages to my son. First, he is not as smart as he thinks he is. He may be good at adding, subtracting and multiplying numbers, but he didn’t understand math concepts. (Later, I would learn his conceptual math abilities are particularly strong.) Second, he needed to be quiet about his abilities, or risk being ostracized by the class. Given the teacher’s hostility to my son, I did not push acceleration. She allowed him to work on word problems independently, but that was all.

I brought out all the big guns in 3rd grade. I not only had him take a second STEP test for math, I contacted Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth for an Educational Evaluation. Two Ph.Ds wrote a 3 page Educational Evaluation that concluded: “To avoid repetition of material and the subsequent boredom and decrease in motivation, (my son) should be allowed to work on fourth grade-level math or higher.” The teachers refused. I gave up. We hired a tutor so he could learn new math concepts after school.

By 4th grade, I learned that no test was going to convince any teacher at our school that his math curriculum should be accelerated. I sat in a room with my husband, the principal, my son’s 4th grade teacher, copies of the California Education Code, the school district’s policies, and the book Teaching Gifted Kids in the Regular Classroom: Strategies and Techniques Every Teacher Can Use to Meet the Academic Needs of the Gifted and Talented, and I got mad. I got leaning-over-the table-finger-poking-red-faced-mad. My surprised husband (the reliably hot headed one) jumped into the fray and suggested that “we all step back and try to find some common ground.” It worked. We got the teacher to pre-test our son before each math lesson. If he demonstrated mastery, he was allowed to skip the lessons. We kept his tutor. When he tested out of a concept, he was allowed to work on the tutor’s assignments during class. In addition, the classroom teacher did not assign him any homework.

So, what did I learn from all of this? I learned that a good assessment (or several) can let you know what your child needs and give you the conviction to fight for it. I learned that no test will convince a teacher, not otherwise inclined, to deliver an accelerated curriculum if he or she lacks the resources or motivation. I learned that when nothing else works, righteous outrage sometimes is the catalyst to make things happen. I learned that to be productive, outrage must be coupled with a reasonable proposal. Most importantly, I learned that my son is the most accommodating child in the world to put up with all this nonsense.

What has your experience been with effectiveness of assessments in getting your children the accommodations they need? Please share with us in the comment section below.

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5 responses to “The Perfect Test

  1. Lisa, I love your “righteous outrage.” I am living this every day too, although my son attends an “elite” private school in London, in the US equivalent of 2nd grade. The attitude here is exactly the same, and I too am one of “those” parents who dares to advocate for my child. The support here in the UK is much less than in the States. Your words motivate me to continue these absurd conversations with the school, until an appropriate curriculum is developed. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s shocking that this attitude in education is so pervasive.

  2. Mike Jackson

    When I first began my (elementary) teaching career, I felt called to teach “special education”. This, as I saw it then, was the fierce support for those kids for whom success at school was difficult, for many reasons. I was often congratulated and commended for this call. I actually did very little in strictly special education classes but found I was skilled at helping those kids in my class that needed that support. It was gratifying work. I remember (shamefully now) rolling my eyes when I heard people advocating for “gifted kids”. I thoughtlessly adopted the popular view that these kids would “be just fine without support”.

    Fast forward a few years and I am married to a gifted student, have one of my own and work at a gifted school (apparently I needed to be hit over the head with this). To make a far-too-long story shorter, the epiphany I had was the gifted kids ARE “special ed”. In fact, many really should have IEPs. They have needs (social and academic) that often the classroom teacher cannot (or will struggle to) meet. These kids struggle, not finding success always as is popularly believed. But most importantly, they have every right to the same support, resources and growth that any other child does.

    To make up for past wrongs I have taken it on myself to spread the word whenever possible. There are still many teachers that do not see gifted students in this light but more and more do. The research is out there and is being read I think.

    In the end, though, we have to remember that WE are our child’s first and most influential teachers and we are also often their only advocates. I applaud your tireless attempts to be heard and am sorry to have seen my previous-self in your words. Thank you for your post. I hope many teachers have read this.

    • Thank you for sharing, Mike. Teachers today are under a lot of pressure and are often expected to be able to know and do everything, which is not possible. Gifted students are often the last ones they are worried about because of the many misconceptions that still exist. If we can help more teachers understand the need for and value of supporting the gifted child, as well as some simple ways to accommodate gifted students in the classroom, I think stories like this will become much less common. To get there, however, we are all going to need a lot of patience and willpower. Thank you for helping spread the word!

  3. overexcitable

    Reblogged this on Overexcitable and commented:
    Mike Jackson’s comment should be widely read and absorbed!

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