Passing the Test

King started third grade last week. Monday and Tuesday of this week started and ended with King in tears, exclaiming:

This is the worst day of my entire life!

I must admit, my first inclination was to laugh and say,

Oh, Son, you have no idea what real trouble is.

But I held my mother hat firmly in place and tried to see things from his perspective. King's third grade stressors include:

  1. All his books won't fit into his backpack correctly, including this huge new third grade three ring binder (he informed me that he now categorically hates three ring binders).
  2. His homework load has seemingly doubled in both quantity and difficulty.
  3. Mad Minutes: a timed test of thirty math facts to be done within a minute.

King has to take a Mad Minutes test every day of every week and it has been the bane of his third grade existence, so far. The problem is not the math facts. He's got the math down. The problem is the test. More specifically, that it is a timed test. Unfortunately, King inherited from me a mutant test-taking-deer-in-head-lights gene, that shows itself whenever fast thinking is involved. Some people excel under pressure, others crumble. King and I are crumblers. You put a stop watch on us and we seem to forget everything, even our names.

I grew up in the shadow of my brother, the quintessential test-taker, and I always assumed I was slow, as in kinda dumb. It wasn't until much much later in life that I came to entertain the idea that this might not be true. Perhaps I wasn't the dunce I thought I was. Maybe I just sucked at taking tests.

Timed tests are a fact of life in today's educational system. The standardized (timed) test is used across the board to gauge where you are on the smart curve throughout your educational career and ultimately decides where you can go to college (SAT) and then grad school (GRE, MCAD, LSAT, etc.). But do these tests really measure how smart you are, or do they measure how good you are at regurgitating facts under pressure? Tests like these may be useful in pointing out those individuals who might be better suited as air traffic controllers or floor traders, but they shouldn't be the main mechanism by which we decide academic success and placement.

As much as I'd like to take a philosophical stand against the tyranny of the standardized test, I must get off my soapbox and back to King. He's still got to get through his Mad Minutes. The whole class is working towards a pizza party based upon each child's ability to pass these tests, with each level achieved being marked by a slice of pizza plastered on the classroom bulletin board next to their name. If King can't earn his slices, everyone will know that the pizza famine is his fault.

How to proceed? Curtis and I started by watching him take a practice test at home. We immediately noticed how carefully King wrote his answers. We took the test away and asked him to write the numbers "1 -10" three times as fast as he could, only to discover that he could not even do this in one minute. Of course, King had been taught in school that you should have good penmanship, not to rush or write sloppily. This led us to our first lesson for King: The Mad Minute Penmanship Exception.

Back to the test.

Okay, try it again and write your numbers fast this time.

Curtis stood over him with the stopwatch, checking his progress and giving him status reports:

You're doing good.
You're halfway there.
Pick up the pace.
You're running out of time.

This scene was really horrible to watch. As the test went on, King's agitation increased, his lips pursed, his face got red, his pencil was slipping in his hand from the flop sweat, until finally he couldn't see the paper through his tears. This was not working. We took the test away again and sat down for a talk. It was time for Lesson #2: The Proper Importance of Mad Minutes in the Grand Scheme of Life.

We had always stressed to King how important it was to do well in school, but it was time for some perspective. I wasn't going to let King suffer the same fate as myself, living under the idea that he just wasn't quite as smart as every body else. We emphasized to King that he was a smart kid who was good at math. Mad Minutes just wasn't that important.


Why do they make me do it then? he asked.

Good question.


Because it is important and helpful to be able to look at a 2 and a 4 and just know that it's 6, without having to think about it. The teachers at your school need to find out if you know these things and this is the way they have decided to do it.

It worked! The pressure is off and he has passed a mad minute test almost every day since. He's one test away from his first slice of pizza.