Last month I met with very nice, yet very concerned parents of a boy I am now tutoring in English. These parents are very successful, and the basement I was sitting in with them is the kind you dream of for your own home. As we spoke (without their son), I could hear the nervousness in both parents’ voices. The father even came home early from work to speak with me. The parents were concerned because their child is struggling. However, he isn’t struggling socially; he isn’t struggling at sports, either. Apparently, he isn’t even struggling in school. So, I pretty much found myself asking, “Why am I here?” and “Why are these parents so nervous?” Was there something really, truly wrong with their child? Was it something out of a movie in which I swarm in and work with this boy to bring him back to life? Was this my Dangerous Minds/Freedom Writers moment? Not so much. Actually, the reason I was there was because their son just missed the cutoff for a Level 3 on his school’s ELA Benchmark test. Yes, that was the reason these parents were so worried. Their son didn’t pass his school’s ELA practice test. Not even the real one.

Did You Say Practice Test?

On Long Island and in New York, students take the English Language Arts Exam. This is considered the test of tests for students grades 3 through 8. At least one practice or “benchmark” exam is taken by students to assess weaknesses for the upcoming test. In actuality, this is the test by which districts are “graded” to determine aid, relief, ranking, and punishment. Please notice how I refer to grading the “schools” and not grading the “students.” There is a very big difference. Most concerned parents and students believe the opposite. They are wrong.

Why Are These Scenarios Even Arising?

In this instance, the meeting between school officials and the parents was purely CYA on the part of the school. School districts, no matter how rich, can’t afford to have even a single student score a 2 (fail) on any state standardized test (anything below a 3 is considered below grade level) because aid, relief, ranking, and punishment are dictated by these scores. A few bad scores can literally derail a very successful district. In today’s day and age, district officials aren’t taking any chances. Can you blame them? This particular student is only in 8th grade, but the ELA exam has become increasingly “important” and measurably difficult because federal law states that the level of “rigor” must be increased from the previous year. This puts unbelievable pressure on students, parents, and school districts. In April (unless New York State changes the date, number of days, and time—again) students all over New York will take this test to measure “growth.” Growth against what, I don’t know, but growth of some sort. I guess it may be growth against kids who had different teachers and took a different, “easier” test the year before? Or maybe growth against their own scores on a different, “easier” test on different material taken the year before? The problem is, no one really knows for sure.

How To Handle This Situation…

Considering the parents’ dilemma, it is crucial to visualize how you will act when you are faced with a similar situation. Please take the time to consider the following questions:

  • Would you have tried to console the parents?
  • How long could you have listened to these concerns without saying anything?
  • Do you feel comfortable talking to parents about state standardized tests? If not, what steps need to be taken to become more comfortable?
  • Would you have attempted to explain the truths about the ELA scores while maintaining the true significance of the exam?

Visualizing how you would have handled the situation is very important because no doubt, if you haven’t already, you will be faced with similar predicaments in the future. Having an idea about what you will say gives you the authority to act as the expert—which you are—and helps you relieve any tension or worries the parents and child may have.

How Did I Handle This Situation?

The way I addressed the issue was to focus on the last bullet. I saw that these parents were devastated that something was wrong with their child. I can tell you from experience that when parents hear that something is wrong with their child, everything else stops. We naturally jump to conclusions about the future, about success, about college, about life. In cases similar to this one, parents can’t think rationally because they aren’t given the information to do so. You need to be there to help these people make the best rational decisions for their children. My primary job was to explain that this was not a life altering problem by telling the parents the truth. I worked to calm them and help them understand the true nature of the problem. When I worked with their son, I mainly focused on creating trust and building confidence. By the next time we met, he had already read half of a book he picked out from the school library. His father was troubled that his son didn’t like to read fiction, and he partly blamed himself for his son’s apparent troubles. Misinformation tends to cause more confusion and pushes parents further away from the truth.

Why I know It Worked…

I was fortunate enough to get a thank you from the mother just a few days after our meeting and have been working with the student for about a month. The mother was and is thrilled that her son and I have connected. He is very excited to be working with me, and I am glad to be helping him. My only hope is that my work with this boy—helping him gain the necessary skills and confidence needed to excel in English—isn’t destroyed by the skewed grading system used by New York State. We shall see.