On Exceeding One’s Potential

First published in NCHA News, February/March 1992.

A few months back, a friend’s mother, on reading a copy of NCHA News, commented that many of the writers seemed to be reacting to experiences from their own childhoods and letting those experiences influence the decisions they were making about their children’s education. “Well, of course!” I thought. We can do all the research, giving careful consideration to every aspect of an issue, but any decision we make will inevitably be filtered through our own histories, through the incidents and events and traumas which have made us what we are.

While I remember taking standardized tests in first and third grades (carefully filling in all those bubbles without going outside the lines was the sort of task which for some odd reason appealed to my six-year-old self), the fifth grade tests were the first to make any lasting impression.

My brother and I usually awaited the results of parent-teacher conferences with interest, as my mother felt that we had a right to know what our teachers had to say about us, and always gave us a fairly thorough summary. That year, the school was somewhat concerned about my brother, since his achievement test scores showed that he was not workng to his full capabilities. I, on the other hand, was the object of mild surprise, since my test scores showed me to be exceeding my potential. Consider the concept here: Several months of work by a ten-year-old is shown to be somehow a mistake or a fluke because of three or four hours’ worth of filled-in bubbles scored by a machine. The idea that the test might be flawed or might not measure what it purported to measure seems not to have occurred to those administering the test. (I have no doubt that the test makers provided lots of caveats about how their test should and should not be used, but I suspect very few teachers or principals or other education officials read all the fine print.)

Aside from feeling somewhat smug about doing better in school than I was “supposed” to be doing, I don’t recall being particularly bothered by my test scores. Within a few years, though, my “potential” caught up with my actual performance, and test taking became one of my major talents.

This I now think was unfortunate.

There were a lot of tangible advantages, of course. Those of us who tested well were placed in the upper tracks, with the most interesting courses and the best teachers. We got first crack at college scholarships and at the “best” universities. If we kept at it, we got college credit by examination, and we got first crack at the best graduate schools, too.

Of course, we thought all this was due to our natural superiority. Deep down, most of us probably knew that our ability to perform well on standardized tests was a knack, a lucky combination of memory, vocabulary, and the ability to think like the test makers. But how could all those teachers and counselors and admissions officers be wrong? They wouldn’t make such a fuss over us if there wasn’t something truly wonderful about us, would they? It followed that we would eventually come to agree with their judgment.

Naturally, we were in for a rude awakening when we launched ourselves out into the real world, among people who had spent less time being impressed with their grades and test scores and more time actually learning to do things. Being quick learners, of course, most of us adjusted fairly rapidly, and in fact were quite relieved to realize that no one really cared what our SAT or GRE or MCAT or LSAT scores had been.

But what a waste of time and energy. And what a loss of possibilities to have automatically eliminated 90 percent of our acquaintances from any attention whatsoever, on the assumption that they would have nothing worthwhile to offer because their test scores fell below a certain percentile.

So now I watch my daughters grow and explore, and let their work tell me of their interests and strengths. I let them choose their friends for themselves without worrying whether such friends are “intellectually suitable.” If the time comes when they need test scores of some kind in order to do what they want to do, I will help them develop test-taking skills, on the understanding that those skills are a means to an end and of no instrinsic value.

In the meantime, if someone tells me my daughters should be tested so that I will know more thoroughly of their strengths and weaknesses, I will think, “How dare they presume to know, on the basis of a few hours’ questions, anything at all about a creature so complex as a growing child?”

How dare they?!

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