Saturday, November 22, 2008

It’s All in the Numbers…or Not

When I turned 16 years old, I thought, “Wow, I’m halfway to 32.” Thirty-two looked really, really old and far away at the time. Today, I turned 42, so I’m halfway to 84. Weirdly enough, 84 doesn’t look nearly as old as 32 looked then.

Much of what I thought at 16 turned out to be wrong, and not just the idea that 32 was old. I felt like I was just getting started at 32 because by then I realized that life experience is the best teacher ever and I still had much to learn. At 16, however, I didn’t appreciate the value of life experience. All I cared about was acquiring knowledge from books and regurgitating that knowledge on tests and making perfect grades. My life was all about the numbers.

I am not a genius. From early childhood, lots of people told me I was smart—and I was—but my actual IQ score disappointed me. The school counselor gave me an IQ test around age 16, and my score was high but not in the genius range. Since grades were the be-all-and-end-all measure of my worth as a human being (a standard I never applied to anyone but myself, by the way), my IQ score felt like a huge failure on my part. That score became my dirty little secret, a source of shame, something to hide because it wasn’t good enough. At 16, I lacked the benevolent perspective gained only from experience and desperately needed a prescription for Zoloft.

A recent article in Scientific American Mind magazine reported that people with really high IQs and fantastic grades in school are generally not the most successful or happiest in adulthood. Merely good grades, good intelligence, and a good work ethic are more likely to lead to happiness and success. Book learning isn’t everything, so those scores and grades that measure book learning and IQ don’t actually mean much in the grand scheme of life. How is it, then, that so many high-achieving kids and adults never learn this? Why are some—like me—driven to the point where they would rather die than fail anymore at the unachievable goal of academic perfection?

For 16-year-old me, the answer to that question had two parts. First, my personality had perfectionist tendencies and a teeny, tiny bit of OCD. (Those of you who know me are laughing right now; I can hear you.) Second, while everything I did was wonderful in my mother’s eyes, my dad saw me differently. Here’s a random sampling of his commentary on my accomplishments: “No one ever remembers who finishes second.” “You made four A’s and an A plus, so why aren’t they all A plusses?” “You got a 99 on your chemistry test. Why wasn’t it 100? A careless error? Don’t let it happen again.”

Combine my over-achiever personality with years of this sort of motivational talk, and it’s no surprise I felt like a failure at 16. You’ve heard the saying “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Well, George recently encountered a variation on it: “What doesn’t kill you really hurts and sucks a lot.” So very true. Life experience eventually taught me that beating myself up over test scores and grades was pointless and cruel, that those numbers have only limited usefulness in real life, and that they bear no correlation at all to my value as a person.

This enlightened attitude comes in handy these days. Our son Jack has autism, and Jack’s brain just doesn’t understand why he should care a fig about what grown-ups want him to do. When confronted with a testing situation, he doesn’t think, “Gee, this grown-up really wants me to do this, so I better do it well.” He thinks something like this: “Why is this person asking me what letter is on this sheet of paper? There’s a fly buzzing around. Buzz off, fly! Oh, look! The walls are blue. I love blue. Blue is my favorite color. Thomas is a blue tank engine. What’s under the table? That woman is tapping the paper. How annoying. Oh, okay, that’s the letter P. Can I go play with my cars now?” You can see how he might not score very well on tests, especially if they are timed. Fortunately, he’s not bothered at all by his scores yet, and I hope it stays that way.

His teachers, however, have a different attitude. At Jack’s last parent-teacher conference, his kindergarten teacher and special education teacher both dwelled on how low his DIBELS score was and what we need to do to bring it up. For most children, the DIBELS test is an excellent predictor of future literacy success, and our district administers it at the beginning, middle, and end of kindergarten. The test results are used to determine which children need serious reading intervention, which need just a bit of intervention, and which are doing just fine. I volunteer as a tutor for the middle group, while the lower scoring children go to a reading specialist.

Jack’s DIBELS score wrongly indicated he hardly knew his letters at all. His special education teacher said she was amazed the first time she worked with Jack because he really did know almost all his letters. At first, I was confused. Why did these two teachers—one of whom presumably knows something about autism—care so much about Jack’s score? I said, very politely, “I honestly don’t imagine that Jack will ever do well on standardized tests, at least until we can find a good motivator for him. Besides, he’s not going to learn like the other children, and that’s okay. He can learn and is learning. That’s what’s important.” Duh.

I expected them to relax when they realized I didn’t blame them for the low score, but they just kept talking about strategies for getting his score up. Then it dawned on me why they were so obsessed with the DIBELS. The No Child Left Behind Act places insidious pressure on teachers to focus on test scores. Jack is dragging their numbers down. This realization made me want to say unpleasant, very foul words to the universe in general, but I took a deep breath and reminded myself that getting mad about bureaucratic crap and legislative stupidity is a waste of energy. (I learned that lesson through years of experience as a dependent military spouse.) Plus, taking my anger out on the teachers would be horribly unfair. I deeply appreciate their efforts on Jack’s behalf and tell them so as often as I can. They are doing a great job; Jack has made wonderful progress in the last three months. I’m particularly happy that he is finally showing interest in early literacy skills. But I refuse to care a fig about his DIBELS score. He’s not going to be left behind. Lots of people are seeing to that.

My firstborn, Nick, does pretty well in school…except for math. For the last two years, he has struggled with learning his math facts. Those pesky sums and differences just don’t stick in his head. Now that he’s starting multiplication and division, he’s getting particularly frustrated. His third-grade teacher grew alarmed in early October and suggested having him tested. The test results indicate that he probably has a math learning disability.

Unfortunately, Nick fixates on grades just like I used to do. Last week, he brought home a timed test of multiplication facts. He told me and George at dinner that he’d failed a math test. “I got an F minus,” he said. I responded, “What do you mean by F minus? Your teacher didn’t write F minus on your test.” I was certain of this. She’s wonderful and would never do such a thing. “I got them all wrong, so it was an F minus.” In truth, he had gotten most—but not all—of the problems wrong and had written the F minus on his paper himself.

Doesn’t this just break your heart? It sure broke mine.

Early this week, I attended an Intervention Assistance Team meeting to discuss Nick’s math issues. The principal, school psychologist, school counselor, special education teacher, and Nick’s third-grade teacher were there. When I told them about the F minus, every woman at the table gasped in shock and sorrow. I knew we were all on the same page. I also knew we were in a position to do something about it.

After all the discussion of Nick’s scores and grades, the principal concluded, rather boldly and bluntly, “What we have here is a young man of fine intelligence who has a learning disability in math.” I wanted to applaud. If you never attend these sorts of meetings, you don’t know how much dancing around the teachers, therapists, and administrators usually do in an effort to be tactful. To hear someone with the courage to speak the truth, speak it clearly and with great compassion…well, it just made my day.

You see, Nick’s problems with math have been going on for two years now, and finally, he’s getting focused and constructive help. George and I hope he will feel the love and encouragement that surround him at home and at school, and we will do our best to make sure he knows he’s more than a score, more than a grade, more than a child with a math disability. Scores helped us identify a problem, but human intervention and compassion will help him through this.

As for my own numbers…last year, I took an online IQ test, thinking I’d probably grown dumber since age 16, mainly because having children gives you the sensation of having your brain sucked out via your uterus. To my pleasant surprise, my IQ has increased. At this rate, by the time I’m 84, I might even be a genius and am absolutely certain I won’t care in the slightest.

Life is just too rich and complex and wonderful and full to boil it down to a number, unless of course it’s 42, which, coincidentally, is
the answer to life, the universe, and everything, according to Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

No wonder I’m gloriously happy to be 42 today.


  1. Happy Birthday! Here's your towel.
    Another excellent entry - thanks for sharing with me. :)

  2. What a wonderful post!! You are a great mom and a smart one too. Smart in the ways that matter!!

  3. You should check out - lots of support for your son


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