Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sheep and Goats

I was about to start my weekly volunteer stint in AJ's classroom. This morning I was helping students edit letters they'd written to each other and to their teacher ("Dear Mrs. F, How old are you? May I guess 29?"). Mrs. F. came out of the classroom to talk for a minute while the students were rummaging through their desks in preparation for their next activity.

"We got the test scores yesterday," she said. I knew instantly that she was talking about the Otis-Lennon test that all the 2d graders took earlier this year. "It's not good." AJ didn't make the cut-off for the gifted program. "He was close, but he didn't make it."

This is not good news. Although also not entirely unexpected. This is AJ's first real experience with group standardized testing. The testing we did privately last year was one on one. Moreover, he had never done questions like this before and the school did nothing to prep the students. For a kid like AJ, who tends to freeze when he sees something he is not 100% sure he knows, this is not a good thing. From all I had read about the test, it was set up to play to his weaknesses. Many of the questions are somewhat ambiguous. Students are supposed to look for the best of several answers that may be right. AJ sees too many options in such situations. Instead of thinking it through, when there are multiple options, he shuts down.
Mrs. F. went on to say that AJ appeared agitated during one section of the test in particular. She thought he was guessing because he didn't understand what he was supposed to do. It was a section with pictures instead of math or words. My suspicion is that this test has tested his ability to take tests, not his "mental capability," as it says it is supposed to."

He is apparently not alone. A couple of studies have been done that have demonstrated very gifted kids often do poorly on the Otis-Lennon. Still, it is one of the most commonly administered tests for identifying gifted children, mainly because it is cheaper to administer than most tests. It takes only 45 minutes and requires no special training for the administrator. And considering that, many reviews suggest it is a pretty good test for the investment. But it doesn't seem to be very accurate. I've seen variability rates as great as 9%. But still, how do we process not making the cutoff on one test and 99.9th percentile on another? And am I wrong to give more credence to a test where a psychologist sat down with my kid for over an hour and talked to him over a fill in the bubble test that took 40 minutes that was taken in a classroom full of distractions?

We are trying to figure out what to do next. These kind of things make me second-guess myself all the time. Am I pushing too hard? Am I kidding myself? And then AJ starts doing something at home where it becomes clear to me that we are not in error. We have off-the-charts test scores form private testing and two classroom teachers who will vouch for him. That should be enough. But as I understand it, school policy bases admission to the program on Otis-Lennon scores alone. I can certainly understand why a school would have such a policy. You need to be able to draw a line in the sand. But does it really make sense to draw the line in this particular case?

Mrs. F. said she can make sure he gets into the cluster class with the other gifted kids next year, but she thought we'd better get involved if we want him in the pull-out program. We're meeting with the gifted teacher on Monday to figure out what the story is. But my first contact with her was not encouraging and we're preparing for a fight.

I'm putting together a dossier which includes AJ's previous test scores (even though the school already has them) as well as written reports from his teachers at a summer camp for gifted kids last year, a recommendation written for his application to the camp by his first grade teacher and, hopefully, some of the articles about the fallibility of the test. I may also contact the university where we had AJ tested last spring, which offers some resources for parents of gifted kids and may be able to help.

And for my own sanity, I called Siren to bend her ear about it. She suggested we consider offering to take him for a full IQ test if necessary.

Logically, I would think that the school would have enough grounds to make an exception -- we have test scores and teacher recommendations. That really should be enough. But we haven't had to confront a formal policy before. We're not sure what's going to happen.

But another issue is how much we want to fight for this. We don't really know much about the program and I have to say that my interactions with the teacher who runs it have not been overwhelming. Is this something we should even be worried about? Is clustering enough? He will be tested again next year. Should we just wait? Siren rightly suggested we hear what they have to say. I knew I could count on her to keep me from going off half cocked. So I am resigned to wait until Monday. This is good, because it leaves me enough time to have nine heart attacks over my nearly-but-not-quite finished taxes.

And I was hoping for an easy transition this year. I guess there's no such thing.


My Kids' Mom said...

I'm on my way out the door so I'll be brief. First, the school is wrong to not teach test-taking. Pook has had too much of it, but some is important. Second, you know he's gifted, so fight if you must. He needs to get pulled out or he'll grow to hate school. Any chance they'd agree to let him take it again? Or even to take the 3rd grade version?

jill said...

If the gifted program appears to be crap, he's probably better off out of it and doing enrichment programs you choose for him.

I was in the G&T program (granted, this was back in the 70's) in my local school, and it was pretty much crap. I got very little out of it (it was heavy on "Projects" of the undirected variety and generalized suspicion from the rest of the school community). Even with the G&T program, I was shutting down by the beginning of 5th grade.

I didn't really start getting a lot out of school until I started private school in the 6th grade.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Christ. I think Jill makes a good point, but if the G&T program looks good for him, fight. Do you want to talk to my mom again? She's been on both sides of this coin (as a parent and as a school district administrator) and might be able to offer you some suggestions.

Eleanor said...

As the mother of a budding astrophysicist who never had the advantage of a "gifted" programme, I have to say that the curriculum AJ receives at school will never equal what you and Mr. Spy can give him at home. Even if he were in the gifted stream, you would still be supplementing his education outside of the classroom. I think it is important for AJ that he be with normal kids as well as higher IQ kids for his social development. After all, the real world is full of average achievers and he will have to learn that not everyone is as brilliant as he is. There is some merit in being ordinary. However, if you really think it's important, insist he be retested. I just don't think it's important.

Unfocused Me said...

Siren is generally calmer about this kind of thing than I am, and she has had to talk me off the ceiling a few times. So believe me, I feel for you.

Sounds like you're handling it the right way. Hang in there.

Jeanne said...

My experience so far has taught me two things about dealing with a school system on testing issues: 1.have the kid tested as often and repeatedly as possible 2.talk to other teachers and friends in the school system, because they know how to work it.

All the supplementing in the world would not have gotten my kid through school without the various gifted programs, which have been of varying use in different years. One of his gifted classes this year is useless, but being identified let him take three high school classes this year as an eighth grader, and that's helped a lot.

I don't know anything about test prep, but that does sound like the one area where A.J. needs lots of supplementing at home.

My main message here is keep fighting for what you know your kid needs. I'm a proponent of the gadfly system for parents.

FreshHell said...

Oh this is SO VERY WRONG. I'm trying to come up with something level-headed to say about this travesty but all that pop up are curse words. To not let the children know what to expect in a standardized test, to not explain how one takes it, does them a grave disservice. When Dusty took the test for the gifted program thru JHU, they sent a packet with screen shots, examples of the kinds of questions they'd get. Dusty and I looked it over, we talked about how guessing, if you don't know the answer, is better than skipping. But, don't sweat it because the test is timed.

I would say do not give in without a fight. Bring your other test scores and explain to them where AJ's difficulties lie because, like I mentioned before, gifted kids (and he IS gifted) often have trouble in this various area and for the school system not to realize this, means there's a flaw in the system. A big one.

That said, if you lose the fight, AJ will probably not suffer too greatly. He's got you and your ability to provide him with challenges and to work tirelessly with his next teacher. Who should pick up on his talents pretty quickly if she's smart.

Good luck. I am just IRATE that they have set him (and other kids) to fail. Have you looked into your options through the Disabilities Act? Not sure you want or need the extra work and aggravation but this is such a common thing in gifted children....it's incredible that they don't recognize it.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear. This does happen, I know from experience.
Is entry into the gifted program, as early as 3rd grade, really only based on a test? That seems very wrong.
I think it's probably important to get him into the gifted program, even if it's crap, just because it identifies him. Especially in schools, being identified is important, and once you haven't been, it's harder to get in. (I'm thinking of people under the old tracking system -- once you're stuck in the B group, it is very hard to get out -- just because you've been subjected to a year of B group classes, and haven't learned as much.) Much easier to make the switch now, I should think.
Plus, I'm thinking of the impact on AJ. With my kids, who tend to underestimate themselves anyway, it would have clearly sent them the message that they were just not as smart as they thought. You don't really want any kid to get that message.
It's sort of awful to be in the position of having to toot your own kid's horn, but I think it's probably worth it. I think your package sounds good. I'm sure jeanne is right about the value of talking to other teachers -- this year's and last year's, plus any friends, to figure out how to work the system.
Your package sounds eminently reasonable. I think it's probably worth fighting for.

Anonymous said...

Just read this again. It also sounds like AJ's teacher is clearly advising you to get involved. That makes it even clearer to me that you should try. School district have stupid policies because they don't want to actually have to think. I think they do this to protect themselves from parents who actually want the best for their children (how dare they?), but it means that you really have to be quite forceful with them to get something completely reasonable. I am absolutely terrible at playing the pushy parent, but from what I have seen, it really pays off. I think you have to do it. Just remember that you are really not the crazy one. You've got enough proof, and if they do want, go ahead and offer to get a full IQ test. (It's actually sort of fun, and interesting.)

Anonymous said...

What I told Harriet yesterday is that the gifted program is almost certainly set up to identify and deal with the 95th percentile gifted kid, as most gifted programs and educators are. The 99.9th percentile, particularly when they are divergent thinkers, are wired utterly differently. The system has almost certainly not seen a kid like this before, but because they believe themselves to be expert, they will be resistant to being educated about the issue.

Highly gifted is just different than regular gifted. Profoundly gifted (the kids with the really significant challenges in getting along in the world) is yet another situation. We are talking about orders of magnitude in brains being wired differently.

This is going to be difficult to surf through, no question. But I have great faith in a few things: 1) Harriet and Mr. Spy's strength and tact, for dealing with the scho; 2) AJ's innate strength and his ability to develop resilience; and 3) Harriet and Mr. Spy's proven ability to understand and respond to AJ's needs.

If the red tape ridiculousness of this situation can't be navigated for the upcoming school year it will be painful in many ways, but it's likely working within the gifted program would also present challenges because it's not set up for a kid like him. Having a gifted kid is a constant parenting challenge.

The most important thing now is to be very direct with AJ about his giftedness, so he can own it without feeling like it requires the external validation of a one-shot test. He has a right to know unequivocally that he is different in this way, and to understand why things happened the way they did on the test. He needs to start to understand in detail his strengths and weaknesses in learning, because if he can get a handle on that he can learn to manage a lifetime of navigating situations. I didn't learn how my brain works until I was almost 30, and that is just way too long to wait to understand something so important.

We are very upfront with Unfocused Girl about her learning styles and her giftedness; it hasn't given her a big head or made her in any way obnoxious with "regular" kids. On the contrary, it's helped her relate to others, as well as to understand how to handle things when they don't come easily, or manage disappointments without allowing them to alter her understanding of herself.

Talk to the administrators and teachers and try to work things out that way, but also be upfront with AJ. Tell him what happened and what you think was the cause. Tell him it's OK, that you're working on it, but that he might need to hang on for a bit longer than expected. Give him the tools to understand and deal with the next set of tests. And keep giving him all the love and support you always have.

Harriet said...

Thanks to all for your input. You've helped me put my thoughts in order. I'm going to respond in a new post, just because my comments will be lengthy. Stay tuned!

julia said...

oh, wow. That is no fun, I'm sorry.