Care and Feeding

“Oof—This Is a Terrible Practice!”: Care and Feeding’s Best Advice on School Testing and Grades.

How to handle misinformed teachers, regretted bribes, and an early case of cheating.

A student holds a graded test.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Comstock Images/Getty Images Plus. 

Our columnists have heard it all over the years. As the academic calendar winds down in many areas, we’re revisiting some of Care and Feeding and Ask a Teacher’s best advice on testing, exams, and grades. Join Slate Plus for even more advice columns.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter “Kay” is taking AP Calculus A/B. She is the only AP Calculus A/B student, and her teacher is using a new book and finalizing the curriculum as Kay goes through it. Kay’s teacher has told her she does not need to do several sections of her calculus book for the AP test. My daughter checked with the college board, and then emailed the textbook author, and it turns out her teacher is unfortunately mistaken.

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My daughter is planning to simply study the missing sections herself. The problem is that next year, if Kay gets the good score I expect she will get, her teacher will assume the curriculum was sufficient as is, and the teacher will almost certainly not realize she is not teaching critical information. In general, the teacher is terrific, but she hates to be corrected. What should we do? I certainly don’t want to tell Kay to annoy her teacher, but I also know my daughter, and she will feel very guilty next year if she ends up accidently sabotaging other students going through the course.

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— Puzzled Parent

Dear Puzzled Parent,

Guess how much it matters that the teacher hates to be corrected.

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Seriously, somebody has to tell her. Her students and future students deserve that much.

If your daughter feels comfortable telling the teacher what she found out, she should do it sooner rather than later. That way, the teacher can familiarize herself with how to teach the concepts in those sections and be even more effective next year.

If your daughter doesn’t feel comfortable, you should do it. Are you worried about retaliation against your daughter? I think in this instance it’s OK to preserve the teacher’s dignity a bit and say you were talking to a friend who teaches AP Calculus in another state. You mentioned the textbook, and the sections your daughter was skipping. The teacher-friend corrected you, so you checked in with the college board to be sure. And would you believe it? Those sections will be on the test!

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Just do it. It’ll weigh on both of your minds until you do .And this probably goes without saying, but taking correction is part of being a learner. If anybody should model taking correction, it should be teachers.

— Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)

From: “My Daughter’s Calculus Teacher Is Wrong About What Will Be on the AP Test.” (April 1, 2021)

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son did poorly in school during remote learning even though he’s a smart kid who wants to succeed in his classes. This year has been SO MUCH better with school being in-person, despite having moved from his little elementary school into the wild world of middle school. At the beginning of the year he stated, “I am going to get all A’s this year,” which he is completely capable of. The issue he has is with incomplete work—there is work to do during class and if it doesn’t get done during class it’s homework. He socializes in class and then drags his feet on homework. When the missing work piles up, he gets too stressed out to deal with it and makes all kinds of excuses, from it being Google Classroom’s fault, to a teacher not handing something out, to … running out of time.

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At the beginning of the year he said, “if I get all A’s will you take me to [this local amusement park]?” Maybe I should have allowed for some nuance, but I didn’t, and said, “If you do that, we’ll go there, no problem.” We even agreed on a bigger “prize” if he pulls it off all year. But now the problem is that he has missing work, and some grades have dropped into B or C territory. This is really frustrating for him, and for me—mostly because now that it’s looking like he’s going to fail the challenge, he’s ready to give up completely, even on the bigger end-of-year goal.

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Besides going back in time and saying, “I want to reward your hard work, let’s not tie it specifically to getting all A’s,” how can I rework this goal to maintain the desire to succeed rather than being tied to specific grades? I always want him to work hard and try, but I don’t want to punish him if he tries hard and still doesn’t “win.” How do I get him to keep up that perseverance?

— I Just Want My Kids To Try

Dear I Just Want My Kids to Try,

Tying academic achievement to an at-home reward system will always be tricky, for many of the reasons you outline in your letter. This sort of motivation doesn’t work for every child, even if—and perhaps especially if—the child is the one who proposes it. Your son seems like he might benefit from being rewarded, not for a final grade, but for shorter-term progress, like finishing assignments within the time allotted, socializing outside of class instead of during, and accepting accountability instead of placing blame.

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Bring him back to the negotiation table. Say something like, “Okay. It looks like the amusement park goal may have been too ambitious for this quarter. But we can still turn this around. I’d like to start by measuring our success this year on a scale that isn’t based only on grades.”

There are so many daily steps a child has to take in order to achieve big long-term goals. Your son is still struggling with those, and if he’s going to be rewarded for anything, it should be learning self-discipline and structure. You’ll have to work up to his loftier goals as a family, but those will only be achieved if he establishes better habits day by day.

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— Stacia L. Brown

From: “I Regret Bribing My Son to Get Good Grades” (Nov. 8, 2021)

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

· If you missed Tuesday’s column, read it here.
· Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My children’s school has quarterly countywide assessment tests to track their progress. These tests are used for class placement, as well as consideration in advanced coursework, and students know that they measure more than, say, a weekly algebra or Spanish test. The test is taken electronically, and students always receive their score upon completion of the test. I find this practice very wrong, since all it results in is children comparing their test scores to one another.

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Recently, our middle school took this process even farther, however, by sending students via email the same notice that was sent to parents, which outlined students’ scores as compared to others. Students saw whether they fall in the “high,” “middle,” or “low” range of test scores. What do you think of this practice? And if you agree that it’s as bad as I do, how do you suggest I address it with the administration, without seeming very adversarial? If you think this is OK, I’d love to hear why.

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— Testing Troubles

Dear Testing Troubles,

Oof. Yeah, this is a terrible practice.

Imagine your kid’s doctor measured their height and weight quarterly, told them their body mass index, and showed them where they land on the curve. You’d find a new pediatrician because you know that, first of all, BMI doesn’t take into account fat mass, muscle mass, genetics, blood pressure, mental health, or any other health markers. BMI cannot predict how often a person exercises, nor how many vegetables they eat. Second of all, how does this practice help your kid?

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Never in my 20 years in the classroom has this ranking approach helped kids in any way.
Indeed, it has harmed some students. Kids who work really hard and still end up low will throw up their hands and ask, “Why bother?” And those who score high—what do they gain? They’re already in advanced classes.

I’d definitely ask the administration. (And this is one time I’d skip talking to the teacher because the teachers are, or at least should be, against this policy.) My question to the administration would be this: What purpose does giving kids this one particular measure serve? How does it help the students? Does it tell them how to improve? Does it provide resources to fill any content or skill gaps they have?

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You asked how to address this issue without seeming adversarial. Maybe I’m the wrong person to ask because just thinking about it has me taking my gloves off. But I guess, as calmly as you can, ask those questions, and explain your concerns. If no change is made, recruit other parents to inquire as well. If the administration says it is a district policy, take it up the ladder.

Go make good trouble.

— Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)

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From: “My Child’s School Has the Most Absurd Testing Policy” (Nov. 4, 2021)

Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Dear Care and Feeding,

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Our very sweet and sensitive daughter is in second grade at our local public elementary school. My husband and I place a high value on academics, but I’ve been dismayed about the amount of homework she gets, all of which consists of repetitive worksheets and rote memorization tasks that evidence shows are not effective. Since January, her homework has been to memorize 20 spelling words each week. Every day we try to practice, but sometimes it’s like pulling teeth. I hate feeling like I’m forcing her to do this extra work when I don’t believe there’s a real benefit to most of it, but I’m a rule follower and so, if the teacher assigns it, we make sure she does it. We’ve tried to build some intrinsic motivation in the form of being proud at being able to do hard things and persevering even when some tasks aren’t fun, etc., but I’m honestly not sure how much that’s helping.

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My larger problem is that today I received an email from my daughter’s teacher letting us know that during her spelling test, she was caught with some of the words written down on a sticky note. The teacher gave her a zero and apparently had a talk about “habits of character” (something the school promotes). It sounds like the teacher didn’t demean or punish her, which I’m grateful for. I know we have to talk to our daughter about this, and I’m struggling a bit with how to approach it.

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On the one hand, I don’t want to punish or embarrass her—I’m sure the shame of getting caught was bad enough. And I’m worried that she’s so young and feeling this kind of stress around academic achievement already. On the other, I certainly want to convey that cheating is wrong and it’s more important to try hard than get everything right all the time. Mostly I want to make sure we’re using this as a learning opportunity and that she knows that if she’s struggling she can tell us without fear of judgment or punishment. I’m also not sure if I should be engaging with the teacher in a different way—I basically thanked her for telling me and said we’d talk to her. Should I be doing anything else?

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— Learning Should Be Fun

Dear Learning Should Be Fun,

Wow, this story takes me back. I remember getting grounded for a week for cheating on a spelling test. I was struggling to remember the e at the end of the word orange, so I wrote it on my hand. Unfortunately, my third grade teacher caught me red, or in this case orange, handed. I was mortified when she caught me, so I think you’re spot on with avoiding any additional punishment for your daughter.

Cheating at this age is a natural form of experimentation and boundary testing for kids, especially in perceived high-stress academic environments. Most kids after being caught cheating once or twice give it up as a viable option. (Unfortunately, it is true that in some cases they just get a lot better at it.) But in your case, I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it unless it becomes a pattern. The best thing you can do for her now is to continue disassociating high marks as a primary indicator of success or intelligence, because they just aren’t. Don’t get me wrong, you should still encourage your child to try her best and work hard for good grades. However, getting a high score on every single assignment or exam is an unrealistic expectation for kids, especially at your daughter’s age.

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I always tell my students that I don’t really care if they get the right answer all the time—I would much rather see that they tried their best to figure it out. Layering this value into our classroom culture has been a big help in cutting down on paper peeking and builds resilience in my second graders. I also don’t think you need to engage with the teacher any further on this. Just keep encouraging your daughter to try her best and reassure her that a poor grade is not the end of the world, it’s merely a starting point from which to grow.

— Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

From: “My 8-Year-Old Cheated on a Test” (Feb. 18, 2021)

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