Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Prepping for the Test

            Four weeks ago I wrote about Pip and the letter he received about the accelerated program at his school. At the time I was feeling powerless with respect to a selection process that seemed heavily dependent on a single number generated by one unknown test given on one unknown day. I wanted to Pip to get into this program because he likes school and he likes learning and the accelerated curriculum would give him an opportunity to do more of both. While getting in isn’t the do-or-die situation that it is in some places (we use to live in a rust-belt city where you either got your kids into the accelerated programs or you took them to private schools – there was no in between) I felt like he deserved one of the small number of spots available. Not only has he consistently worked at the leading edge of the curriculum, he also treats others around him with genuine respect. The teachers trust him to take care of his business and do what has been asked of him. He contributes productively to the class and willingly helps others. Pip is the type of kid that these kinds of programs should be accepting.
None of these qualities though show up on the quantitative measurements that are used to determine who gets a place and who doesn’t. The test is the only thing that matters.
            A day or two after writing that post, I decided to get over my paralysis and embrace a moderate Amy Chua approach to taking on this thing. While I didn’t know exactly which test Pip would be taking, it didn’t take a big imagination to go to the internet and figure out which ones he might see. After reading through a couple of different possibilities, I went about putting together example questions that would cover the general scope of what he might see. Each day after dropping him off at school I’d come home and spend about thirty minutes drawing up a set of questions, some of which came from the internet and others of which I made up on my own. When Pip came home each day, we would work through the questions together. It took a couple of days for us to figure out how many he could reasonably do and how best to go through them, but we eventually fell a good rhythm. I even started splitting the questions into an easy practice group and a more complex group to give him some work both at getting used to the types of questions he would face and at working through problems that didn’t immediately make sense to him.
            The most valuable aspect of our work together over the ensuing weeks was what I came to think of as the post-completion review process. After Pip finished all the problems on a given page, I had him explain to me his thinking on each problem before I told him the answer. This process had two benefits. The first was that it forced him to slow down and articulate what he was thinking regardless of whether the answer was right or wrong. This was particularly important for the questions he got right as those he tended to know without really understanding why. The second benefit of this process was that it gave me insights into his routines of thinking that I could then pick at in subsequent days.
            Ultimately, we didn’t have long enough for Pip to really reconfigure his thinking processes to match those of the test or even develop a regular set of procedures for addressing various kinds of problems. However, he did get to see enough problems to demystify the test itself and for him to become aware of which approaches he favored in solving certain types of problems. For the time we had available this was a satisfactory result. As I told Ava the night before the test, I felt like we’d done well. He was prepared for the type of questions he would see. He would be able to spend his time figuring out answers and not having to figure out exactly what the questions were asking of him. This was the best position we could get to without having the test take over our lives.

            All of this work together had a couple of interesting side-effects that I had not anticipated. For one, it temporarily made me into a less friendly person. Usually I’m inclined to talk with other parents just before pick-up time to see what’s going on and to learn how they are feeling about various things taking place at school. It’s mostly an exercise in collaborative competition as people talk about what their kids are into, how they’re doing, things like that. There’s usually some soft bragging on all sides (mine as well) which is fine because it helps give each other a sense of what other kids are doing and what we might expect of our own. And for the most part, the kids are not competing with one another in these moments. It’s mostly just parental pride at stake.
But with respect to the accelerated program tests, I didn’t venture any questions. I decided I’d rather not talk about how Pip was preparing on the off-chance that I’d give someone else the idea to do the same. I preferred to preserve that (possibly imagined) edge for Pip. Of course, without talking about it, I had no idea what others were doing which may very well have prevented me from doing something else that was beneficial, but that was a gamble I decided to take. All of this made me edgy and less talkative than usual. When you’re thinking so much about not letting others know what you’re thinking, it becomes hard to actually speak like a normal human being. In the last couple of days before the test, I couldn’t help but think of Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, and his gruff exercises in ambiguity and non-disclosure with the media. Standing around waiting for Pip and Polly to come out from school, I found myself doing much the same thing.
            On the flip side, now that the test is over, I’ve found that I am missing getting to spend extra time working with Pip. For the past couple of weeks, we’ve had a moment of comradeship each day when it was time to work through the questions I’d put together for him. Polly would come in and sit on my shoulders (literally) and look on while we talked through each of the problems. Pip would be proud when he got the hard ones right, frustrated when something didn’t fit his logic, and excited to do more the next day. The weekend before testing day he even asked for me to put together an extra set of questions for him. We both felt invested in the work and enjoyed having something to work on together in a focused and determined way. The day after the test was over and there was no more prepping to do, the afternoon felt kind of empty and directionless. It was missing the espirit de corps that had become part of our routine. Without that half-hour of intensely close work, I feel like I know him a tiny bit less at the end of the day and that makes me sad.

            So the test is done and now we wait. On the afternoon after the test, Pip said he felt comfortable with the questions and came up with reasonable answers to them all. The tricky thing with this whole test – and the reason it worried me so to begin with – is that the measurement is all relative. He could have done incredibly well and still not make it in to the program. Its all a matter of what everyone else does. Maybe this year was a good year. Maybe it was not. Maybe it won’t matter at all. We just have to wait and see.

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