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'How Is My Child Doing?'

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One of the most destructive things a parent can do is compare one child with another. "Your brother plays the piano so much better than you do.'' "Your sister never had any trouble learning long division.'' "Why don't you get good grades, like your friend Alison?'' Yet our system of education relentlessly compares one student with another, using scores on standardized, norm-referenced achievement tests as if they were infallible indicators of children's potential.

In early childhood and the primary grades particularly, this practice does more harm than good. The results of readiness tests, often no more accurate than a coin toss, convince parents to separate children from their peers and keep them in preschool an extra year. Achievement-test scores support ill-informed decisions to retain record numbers of children and to select who will receive the most enriched education at a stage in life when children have barely begun to show what they can do. Narrow, state-mandated, skill-oriented tests in 3rd and 4th grade have also helped trigger a downward academic spiral, distorting the way children learn and teachers teach.

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