Care and Feeding

I Can’t Believe What Just Went Down in My Kid’s Math Class

I think this might actually be illegal?

2 and 1/2 donuts, arranged in a frowning face shape.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a kid in seventh grade at an excellent magnet school. They are doing great at school, but have long struggled with perfectionism that seems to be fed by a school system that puts a focus on grades and test scores. Recently, in their advanced math class, their teacher brought in donuts for the class to celebrate that most students exceeded expectations on their mid-year standardized tests. As recounted to me by my kid, the donuts were for everyone, even the kids who didn’t do well on the test, but the teacher called them up to get their donuts in the order of their test scores! Think: “Joey and Milly got 23 points above standard—come on up! … Bobby got 8 points above standard—your turn!” and on down to the kids who did not exceed expectations (who were all called up all at once, without mention of their scores).

My kid wasn’t upset by this, as they did well on the test and got a donut early in the distribution of them. But it drives me nuts that teachers call out kids publicly like this. My kid and I had a chat about why I hate this kind of thing, and why I believe that it doesn’t contribute to learning. We talked about one of their friends whose score did not exceed expectations and how she may have felt. Doesn’t FERPA protect students from having their scores publicly aired in front of their classmates? Is this something that’s worth emailing the teacher about? I think this teacher is otherwise great and I’m thrilled by all that my kid is learning in his class. Plus, this seems to be so endemic to our school system that I don’t think it even registers with any individual teacher. Is there any good way to approach this problem?

— Donuts and Distinctions

Dear Donuts and Distinctions,

I hate this as much as you do, and it’s not only endemic in your school system—it’s everywhere.
You’re absolutely right: It is a FERPA violation (standardized testing scores fall under the umbrella of FERPA; they are classified as private information that cannot be released to others unless consent has been given). But as the Student Press Law Center notes, the Department of Education has never enforced FERPA in the kind of situation you describe; it requires “demonstrating that a school has a ‘policy or practice’ of violating FERPA, [which] is different from demonstrating an occasional violation.”

I do think it’s worth emailing the teacher about—or, maybe better yet, setting up an in-person meeting to talk about it. If you think you can do that in a friendly and empathetic way, while also letting the teacher know how much you appreciate him and how well you understand that this practice has become so common, it may not even have occurred to him that it might be damaging. I don’t know if it will make any difference. I don’t know how receptive he’ll be. But if everyone who understands how awful this is keeps quiet about it because it’s so pervasive they figure it’s hopeless, then it really will be hopeless. This is a practice worth fighting.


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