Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Differentiation: At what cost?

It came home in his backpack.  It wasn’t really a big deal. I mean, jeeze, it was a spelling pre-test, right?  All of those check marks were wide-eyed with sideways grins. And at the very top, next to the percentage, was a note saying he was on the “purple” list. In other words, he was just average.

Yes, I’m biased because he’s my son, but I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  He’s not a genius, but he’s pretty smart and so why is he doing this poorly?  When I asked him about it, he said his teacher went through the words too fast and that he was unable to write quickly enough, so I knew I had to start digging for the truth.

All in the name of differentiation, Connor was put on the “average” list because his pre-test didn’t earn him the “honor” of being on the “challenge” list, and he knew exactly what that meant. Ranking the tests by colors doesn’t hide the implications. At the tender age of 8, he’s already aware he’s being tracked as an “average” kid rather than being pushed beyond.  The teacher had even written a blurb on the test noting her surprise when she saw his score because his reading fluency was solid, and the two didn’t correlate.  

To make a long story short, we exchanged a few emails and she discovered (after another spelling pre-test) that if she had him spell the words verbally he only missed one on that particular pre-test.  So, as I suspected, Connor’s anxiety was the issue behind his poor scores. He couldn’t write the words fast enough while she was saying them. Despite his poor performance on the pre-test, she decided to put him on the “challenge” list, which is the most difficult list. He scored a 94 percent and I was so proud. 

Connor is currently in the third grade and a hard little worker. Sure, he picks on his sister, sometimes cries about giving-up playtime for homework time and doesn’t always listen that well, but when it’s time to buckle down and get the job done, he’s always up for the challenge.  It doesn’t matter what spelling list he gets, he’ll do well on the final assessment. 

Unfortunately though, since that 94 percent, he has taken another spelling pre-test and not surprisingly, he didn’t do well. And here he sits, back on the “average” track despite his gains on the “challenge” list. His teacher ignored his progress and her instinct for the sake of staying true to the numbers.  Needless to say, I’m feeling a bit defeated.  He worked hard, proved himself and was kicked out of the high-ability group nevertheless.

So what happens when we lower the bar from the get-go?  What happens when students start getting separated into groups based solely on pre-tests, based on numbers, not based on what is truly best for the students? We start standardizing mediocrity even at the kindergarten level.  Connor will rise to the challenge as most kids will at his age, but instead of pushing him, challenging him to be his best, the pre-test/post-test system is set up to only make students comfortable so they experience success at their own level.  It sounds so nice and politically correct; however, the irony is this process leaves children behind because it widens the gap that already may exist between different groups of children. 

Pre-tests, from my understanding, give teachers insights into how they should approach their curricula.  It’s not supposed to be another form of tracking.  All students should be on the track for the “challenge” list, and not deprived simply because they panic with words they’ve never been tested over before that moment.  Will everyone be able to get all of them right? Of course not. However, building from those mistakes while keeping an eye on the prize is more important than jumping from platform to platform, gaining no real ground.

It’s never any fun to always know you’re one step behind because, by high school, that “one step” oftentimes becomes years and we wonder why kids are bored.  We allow them to get comfortable with just getting-by all in the name of  “differentiation.”  Differentiation isn’t just about numbers or meeting proficiency; it’s about the kids and about knowing what is best for the whole child.

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