Thursday, April 22, 2010

Up Against the System: One Mother's Shock-Introduction to Standardized Evaluations

Our little family has been going through some tense times recently. As our son is 2 1/2 and receives Early Intervention services (while his intelligence and development are fine, his speech is delayed, likely due to his prematurity), which stop at age 3, we have been working with our local public school system to transition into the services they offer.

That is a mild way of putting what's really happening: the reality of 'the system,' which seeks to place all people, especially children, into manageable boxes and units, to make them easier to label and deal with, has come crashing into our lives like a semi-truck landing full-tilt in the living room.

We are not stupid parents. We are not blind parents. But the evaluators of our local school district would like to believe we are both, because they would like to label our son with handy little devices like "attention issues," no matter how wrong we think they are, or how unreasonable their expectations of a two-year-old are. My son is stubborn and easily frustrated and bright and curious and willful and logical. He does not have "attention issues."

I have been blathering at length to my sisters and parents and friends about what we're experiencing, but what better place to try to clarify a problem than on your own blog?

The problem is not necessarily in the services offered, but in the evaluations themselves. We've had a speech evaluation, which lasted nearly two hours, and then the education evaluation, which was about 45 minutes. We weren't able to fully complete either of them because John simply stopped cooperating after a time. Both the evaluators immediately brought up "attention issues," which, frankly, pissed me off. After some reflection, I realized that I'm angry and frustrated on a variety of levels, all of which are slightly silly because there's no requirement that I go through with this process at all. It's entirely the choice of the parents. But it does leave me a) concerned about the mentality of the people who will be responsible for his future education and development, and b) curious and exasperated with the methodology and expectations in the following ways:

1) John is 2 1/2. I realize I only have one child, and my experience is limited, but how long is a child of that age expected to pay attention to any activity? If he's really interested in something, he can pay attention for a good hour, sometimes longer. That doesn't mean his discipline doesn't need work. Yes, he needs, over time, to learn that he often has to sit and do things he doesn't feel like doing, and we're working on that. But I don't see any difference between his desire to be done with the evaluation, and his desire to run around a restaurant when he's done eating. There is a balance here between attention and discipline, but I don't think being "done" with a very boring task after 30 or 45 minutes qualifies as "attention issues," not at his age.

2) The evaluation is idiotic. Correction: it's a load of bullshit. What is it? It's a flip chart, where he has to identify objects and activities by pointing to different pictures. (Which child is swimming? Can you show me the triangle? Which animal is big? And so on and so forth, moving up skill levels designed for six-month developmental increments.) First off, sitting for a long period in front of a flip-chart seems like a silly way to evaluate such a young child, especially as the Early Intervention program focuses specifically on evaluating and working within the child's normal environment. And John only really stopped cooperating when he stopped understanding the questions/instructions. As his speech therapist said when I vented to her a bit, "Well, do you set yourself up for failure on purpose? He knows when he's not understanding something. Partly it's frustration due to the comprehension and speech, but it's also partly that he doesn't see the need to keep going when he clearly doesn't get it."

3) Standardized tests. After working in textbook publishing for so long, I thought I had about reached my limit of loathing of standardized tests. I was wrong. This was worse. First off, sometimes they ask things he simply hasn't learned, or might have learned differently (like, he gets marked down for not picking out the "big" or "small" animal in the picture, but I haven't thought about teaching him specific size relations yet). Second, my gosh, there were so many things in that education test that I don't think I knew until first grade! Third, he of course gets no credit for being clever outside of the test. Example: when he'd really had quite enough of the speech evaluation, you know what he did? He faked pooping. Seriously. Had the whole expression and position and totally fooled me. I rushed him out to the bathroom, which was in the entry of the building. As soon as we got to the the entry, he straightened up, ran to the door, and said, "car." He did this twice. Clearly, he knows that needing the potty is one surefire way to get me to move my butt out of there. I thought that was pretty damn clever. But there's no "ingenuity" or "problem solving" aspect on these tests, so no one else thought it was cool.

[A note on the standardized test mentality: later in the day, both my husband and I found ourselves "teaching to the test" without realizing it. "This is how it starts," I thought. Kind of pathetic. Does it matter whether he picks out which animal is big, or which ducks are "all in a line" now or in six months? No. And yet here we are, wanting him to pass the test.]

None of this sounds like much. But when you're a person like me -- like many of my friends, probably -- the realizations that hit when you're doing these evaluations are pretty rough. It boils down to "we need your child to perform in this certain way so that he can function in this particular system that we've designed, no matter how false or pointless it is, and no matter how unrelated to his or any child's function as a human being."

What worries and angers me is the concern that the entire process might stunt his development as a complete, realized human being. Yes, he needs to be able to do tasks that he might not like. Yes, he needs to be able to sit in school and pay attention and learn. But he's 2 1/2. Shouldn't there be a different expectation between that age and 5 or 6?

Most people with even the mildest level of intelligence find school a bit dull. How far will we go, how young will we reach, to root out the rich creativity and imagination and cognitive thinking that makes standardized schooling a difficult place for so many children?

[Pending my sisters' permissions, I will later post their excellent responses to this description. I will also be posting further entries as we go through the occupational therapy, physical therapy, and psychological evaluations. As the psychologist has already ruffled my spikes by mentioning "non-cooperative," the last should be interesting.]

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