Mom at Work: When Exams Test Parents

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President Bush, in his wisdom, wants to improve schools by making them accountable. He's doing this in the same way you might make your dope-smoking teen daughter accountable: testing her all the time. Let's leave aside for the moment questions of whether testing really helps, whether schools just end up teaching how to do a test, or whether schools can actually get appropriate testing programs ready on time. Let's turn instead to the underexplored question of what effect the testing will have on parents.

Pretty much all middle class parents want the fruit of their loins to be bright. Not geniuses mind, because they're a pain the tail to bring up — high-maintenance, moody, have-to-be-entertained-all-the-time. Ghastly. Nobody could dispute the greatness of Albert Einstein, but if he refused to wear socks even as an adult, can you imagine trying to get him dressed in time for school?

But while we all say we want our kids to be happy, deep down, that means bright. It's hard to be the school dunce and be happy. It's hard to be happy if you're poor and it's hard to earn much if you don't go to college. Bright kids get good grades and prizes and lots of positive feedback from teachers and admiration from fellow students. Kids who do well at school are less likely to do drugs or get picked on and turn psycho like those scary children in suburban schools. That's the thinking. Not to mention that if we have smart children, it means we must be smart too.

In New York City, brightness is almost everything. I was oohing and aahing over a toddler's flawless German and English chatter in the park the other day and the mother shook her head. "No one's really impressed in this town unless the kid's at least trilingual," she said. One of the reputedly best schools in the city requires its three-year-old applicants to take a Stanford-Binet intelligence test. Since the school is also free, there's a lot of competition to get in. Only children who score in the 98th or 99th percentile are considered. We duly sent our son, Rover (not his real name; we're not that mean), for the $150 test, figuring he might, on a very good day, fluke it. Turns out he was in the 40th percentile. According to the literature accompanying the results, this meant he was average.

Now, I always figured he was average. But having some authority put a number on it is a whole different ball of wax. Besides, since when was the 40th percentile average? That means 60 percent of kids who take this test do better than he did. For a while we started referring to him, when he wasn't around, as "Dumbo," or "the Brainiac." Our friends, whose kids got somewhere in the 80s, all assured us the test didn't mean a thing, except that he's not going to that fancy preschool. But once someone has come out and said it, it's hard to shake the notion that your kid might in fact not be bright. And it's easy to slide from "might not be bright" to developmentally delayed and then into researching special schools on the Internet and talking to him veeerrryyy slowwwwly. Or worse, trying to make every conversation a lesson. "Do you want some cheerios? What shape are Cheerios? What color is the box? How many would you say were in that bowl?"

Eventually we settled down and started regarding him as just Rover again, a little boy who likes to sing and dance and call people "poopybutt." But I'm not sure if I can go through this every year. Tests bring out the stupid in me.