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Watching Parents React to Test Scores

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Have you ever watched the faces of a set of parents to whom you've just shown their child's standardized-test scores?

There's always a long silence while the parents submerge quietly and drink in the rows and columns of stanines and percentiles, so there's time to study the fleshy contours. These faces are absolutely, unqualifiedly serious. They may show hints of the youthful, naive optimism their children broadcast every day in class, shades of a worldly, mature indifference (in case the numbers are bad), vestiges of the terrifying knowledge that test scores can build and destroy, but above all, the faces are somber.

After the silence, the faces come up for air, remember I'm there, and sense the need for an utterance. "Well,'' they say breathlessly, and then they may say nothing else for agonizing moments. Or, "Isn't the school teaching reading comprehension?'' Or, "I never see Lucy doing math homework, so I'm not surprised.''

I have watched perhaps a hundred faces in my years of sharing standardized-test scores, and it's always the same pattern: Hand out the data, watch the parents take a breath and go under, see them resurface dizzily, and witness their awful, poignant need to decompress.

I used to give the scores, chat briefly, and leave. Worse, I used to mail the scores home. Not any more. Parents with standardized scores in hand (especially if it's the first time, and it often is, because these are middle-school parents and the scores have suddenly become "serious'') need time to talk. Test scores open the door on their fears and hopes. In my test-score conferences with parents, I have discussed, among other topics, divorce, financial difficulty, birth complications, Little League, penmanship, school lunches, and Franklin spell-checkers.

Though the question is never phrased so baldly, I often have the impression that most parents want to ask, "How much hope--academic hope--should we have for our child?''

It's become axiomatic for me that parents may not be optimistic about their own capacity for change, but they nurture a deep and instinctual belief that growth and progress on their children's part is only a matter of motivation and hard work.

They're convinced, for example, that there's plenty of time to improve these numbers. Besides, the Scholastic Aptitude Test is years away, and it's a different test, and their child is going to be a late bloomer just like they were. They can hire a tutor, or arrange for summer school, or somehow push their child to do better.

Parents assume the test scores will go up year after year, provided the school is doing its job and their child is studying. Many view test scores the way you'd view a growth chart: slow, steady progress, with a spurt here and there. When I tell them a middle-schooler's test scores can be all over the place, like some crazy, everchanging city skyline, they are surprised and relieved.

"So that might explain the low verbal score?'' they ask hopefully.

As a group, they are cruelly well-informed. Some teach at the college level. One sat on the admissions committee at a nearby dental school. They know standardized-test scores are the big, brassy entry tickets, despite recent efforts to minimize their importance. If it's the first time they've seen the numbers, their anxiety (and their interest in hiding their anxiety) is palpable.

Often only one parent comes in. Usually this is for a good and logical reason (work, child care), but once in a while a mother--it's almost always a mother--will confess that she never shows the scores to her husband, because he would be "too upset.''

One mother visits every fall. When her daughter was in the 6th grade, she confessed unabashedly that she would be surprised and disappointed if Heather didn't get into an Ivy League school. I sneaked a second look at the scores. They were average, and Heather was a solid student, but to be worrying now about Yale? I wished I hadn't had any scores to share.

Some parents confess, quite honestly, that they are looking for another piece of data, since they just want to know how hard to push their child. They realize that middle school is a mercurial, unpredictable age. They know that grades can be erratic and inconsistent. An "objective'' source of information would be helpful.

We discuss whether high scores and low grades indicate lack of effort (or, conversely, whether low scores and high grades show strong motivation). Who's to know? Mostly, early adolescents are moving targets. The student you describe in November is not the one you see in April.

What is it about a test score that is so powerful? Its immutability? Its aura of certainty? The belief that numbers never hide?

After a few years of increasingly awkward sessions with parents, I began to see the scores from their perspective. All I was giving them was a set of numbers. To what did they refer?

Now I spend a good 10 minutes going over the test booklet. I show them that "Verbal'' is 50 word analogies; that "Vocabulary'' tests only a sample of 35 words, some of which are quite challenging ("Does your child use 'frivolous' or 'benign' at the dinner table?'' I ask); that the spelling section on "Mechanics of Writing'' isn't spelling, as the learning specialist Priscilla Vail points out, but proofreading; that if you have trouble sequencing sentences in a paragraph, "English Expression'' will be difficult.

After we're done, it's not uncommon for parents to express admiration, and sometimes sympathy, for their children. One lawyer said, "I just spent 75 minutes on a conference call, rearranging paragraphs the way they do here. I'm impressed.''

Occasionally, the digging, inquisitive parent will want to know what kinds of mistakes her child made. We take out the item analysis and go over whole sections, number by number. Once a mother and father announced to me every question their daughter got wrong, complete with her wrong answer, before I told them. It was eerie coming across questions they knew in their bones that Melissa would miss, as if there were a D.N.A. component to test-taking. They didn't know why they knew, but they knew. Somehow it made them feel better.

Inevitably during these meetings, the Hippocratic oath comes to mind: "First, do no harm.''

Tests have the power to be enormously damaging, and yet those who devise and administer them live mostly test-free lives. Tests can't hurt them anymore. They are free of the test's tyranny. Have they (have we?) forgotten what it feels like to be on the other side?

How many people carry around in themselves a numerical image of their potential as mathematicians and scientists and who knows what other careers, branded onto their flanks during their school years?

Surprisingly, not a small number of parents went through considerable pain about test scores themselves; they want to protect their children. It's touching to hear parents say how test scores affected them; how they never even tried mathematics after their S.A.T.'s until an inspiring college professor lured them back; how a housewife, obviously bright, spurned a career in medicine because of her scores.

Normally, our discussion leads to talk of human potential--and if it doesn't, I direct it that way. After all, isn't this what we're really talking about? Isn't a test score a snapshot, taken on three autumn mornings in grade 7, of these 12-year-olds' abilities on some very discrete tasks?

Often the word "I.Q.'' slips off a parent's tongue. I ask what I.Q. is. I don't mean to be facetious, I explain, but in the past decade there has been much hope-inspiring research done on human potential. I mention Howard Gardner, whose work on multiple intelligences is beginning to open so many doors. I refer to Priscilla Vail, whose book Smart Kids with School Problems offers new ways to reach students. I discuss the work of Douglas Heath, a psychologist at Haverford College who indicates that participation in extracurricular activities and character strengths predict adult success much more than test scores.

Sometimes, if it's appropriate, I ask parents what makes them successful in their jobs. They usually say things like: organization, reliability, sense of humor, working well in groups, speaking ability, hard work.

"Test scores?'' I wonder.

"No,'' they admit. "Not much.'' After a pause: "But they still matter.''

James T. English is head of the middle school at Moses Brown School in Providence, R.I.

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