He is swiveling gently in our cow chair knee socks up to his shins. I like the knee socks, a gift from his grandma, they remind me of my own time in fourth grade, but I wonder why I can see them. “Shorts?” I ask him in a tone that is neither instructive nor nagging. “I’m staying in for recess.” He explains. His tone is neutral like mine but quickly his face crumbles. “I hate iReady” he tells me. It is the refrain of his fourth grade year.
At the beginning he was love and light. It was his best year ever he ADORED his teachers and his work. He quit Minecraft to be able to “focus on fourth grade.” He was determined not to miss a single homework assignment. Workbooks were always at hand, pencils sharpened, and Steve and I shared an expression of pleased disbelief. We didn’t want to move too quickly or look too closely in case we upset some delicate balance we were ill equipped to understand. This lasted through November. Then slowly the cracks came.
“I hate iReady” he said. He explained they were expected to do a half an hour of reading and math on the program a week at home. Like the knee jerk liberal I am I instantly wondered about the other families. Did they have computers? At the middle school level we are working on a technology grant that includes internet access to the homes of 45 percent of the students at our school. I assumed someone was taking this on for elementary and tuned back into Leo. “I can’t stand it” he tells me. “I get it wrong on purpose just to have it end.”
Since the sessions were timed this didn’t make much sense. Our boys are doing very well academically so we have the luxury of allowing them to do their homework with no intervention. We assume that learning time management and how to fail and try again are the primary point of homework at this age. As for iReady we decided allow school expectations and natural consequences to take care of his reluctance to complete his assignments. Then came parent teacher conferences where we raved to his teachers about his best school experience ever and they expressed their satisfaction with him as a student and a classroom citizen. In addition to their smiles they had a stapled packet. On it were the assessment scores for iReady. “Yeah…” I said. “Leo doesn’t love iReady.” Despite his lack of love his scores on the program from in class efforts ranged from good enough to great. Somehow good enough wasn’t good enough. “Well ,Leo says he gets the answers wrong on purpose to make the test stop.” Six eyes turn to me. Steve is not expecting this irrational excuse and I am instantly wishing that I didn’t sound like a fourth grader. Maybe it is the medium sized chair that I have squeezed into.
“That’s not how it works” explain the teachers patiently. “Is there an alternative?” I ask. “Like Kahn academy or prodigy or something.” Their response is measured and reasonable. “Tell Leo to give it his all, and if his scores support it he can switch to a different program.” I walk the short block home holding this news tightly in my hand like the present it is. I undo months of non-interventionism in a moment. “Guess what?” I tell Leo, now his conspirator,” if you do really well on the iReady assessment you can switch programs!” His face lights up. He is free from this iReady prison AND has a special arrangement. What could be better?
Chastened by Steve I decide once again to step into the background and allow Leo and the teachers to sort this out. Although I see work books and spelling words I do not again see him work on iReady at home. I figure this is a good thing. When the endless holiday break rolls around we have no plans to travel. The kids are excited for three weeks of nothing. I am scared shitless. To unlock free time we decide somewhat collectively that each day they need to be active for an hour, read for an hour and work on math online for an hour. Oliver leaves the table to do his math RIGHT THIS MINUTE and the rest of us are left, frozen. Leo has not helped shape this list the way his brother has. He is not all in.
“Do you mean iReady?” He asks.” Or Kahn academy, or prodigy or anything else you find.” I say with fasle brightness. “It has to be iReady” he mutters. “Why?” I ask. “They have changed it. They say iReady teaches us exactly what is on PARCC (the standardized test used in CO) and they want us to do well on PARCC. So we have to do it.” The tears are slipping down his face silently. He is trying to be brave in the face of his nemesis.
“You can do it.” We tell him. “It’s just a half an hour a week.” I begin listing the things that make me miserable that I suffer through. This is not a compelling argument. He is lost to us now. Heading down the misery of this program. “It’s NOT. It’s NOT half and hour a week.” His voice is rising. “It is 45 minutes PLUS making up what I have missed.” “Better get going.” I tell him matter-of-factly. This was not the right tactic. I have betrayed him.
He drags himself to the computer making noises of deep psychic pain. Finally he strange sounds turn to intelligible words. “Come try this.” He ask/demands. If my son is being tortured I need to know what it is all about. I pull the seat up to the computer and he starts the program. Slowly, oh so slowly a canned voice begins to read me the instructions. I begin clicking to make her stop. She is reading the words I see on the screen at 1/20th of the pace that seems appropriate. My clicking increases in speed. I am trying to make her stop, advance to the next stage of the problem where I can give the answer. “You can’t” Leo tells me. “She has to finish.” So we wait. I realize am bouncing my leg the way I did in my elementary days. Finally we move forward. She is now offering some sort of complicated explanation about multiplying 3×3. I move the curser to the answer box to enter 9. It isn’t taking. I can’t get the curser in the box. “You have to wait.” Leo tells me. “Wait?” I ask. Then she begins. She is going slowly through the rationale of 3×3. So slowly. Slowly like the offspring of a snail and a sloth. I continue to click. Finally I can input the answer 9. I realize I have been holding my breath. “Steve.” I yell. “Steeeeeeeve” You have to try this.
“Its horrible, right?” Leo asks me, the sparkle back in his eyes. “Intolerable.” I tell him. I think I might have hives. I need Steve’s confirmation. I am not the most patient woman. Steve might be the most patient man. I need confirmation that this is terrible. He takes his seat. Slowly she begins reading the words on the screen. Quickly he begins clicking. He clicks the right side of the page, the words, the bottom. He looks for settings to turn her off. “How do you make her stop?” he asks us over his shoulder. “You can’t” Leo and I say in thrilling unison. He doesn’t believe us. He is searching for drop down menus when the next screen arrives with the answer input. Steve is trying to type 16. It won’t let him. “Its not working” he tells us. “Just wait.” I tell him. Leo trills with laughter. Steve is up out of his seat he can’t make it through the first problem. The man of patience has been taken down by a single iReady math problem.
Leo is standing inches taller. He is justified. He is not alone in his loathing. Still we can not rescue him. He goes to a public school where teachers have to meet the needs of 30plus students per class and follow ever changing curriculum and standards. At the school level they need high test scores to do well on their School Performance Framework (SPF). At the district level they need to follow the results of tests and SPF ratings to distribute resources in a way that is equitable. At the state level they need to offer a comprehensive education for a very low per capita expenditure. Our current school gets 1/5th of what our Vermont school did. Money isn’t everything but it is something. iReady is a necessary evil. For some kids it isn’t an evil at all. The instruction is clear and extensive. The results are fed directly to the teachers and are granular enough for them to meet each student where they are.
We talk about this with Leo. He understands but it doesn’t change his experience. “Why do they care so much about test results?” He asks me. The answer is complicated. At some point we had discussed standardized testing and he has held on to the nugget that he can opt out. “Opt me out.” He tells me. It is a strange phrase. I explain that he is a great tester. That his high 90s scores will help his school. “I don’t care. I want them to do badly. Maybe then they will care less about tests.” I ask him if he thinks it would really work that way. He lowers his head. “No. I know it wouldn’t. “My friends and I are talking about just putting C for every answer on PARCC.” “Why?” I ask him. “To show them that testing shouldn’t be the only thing.” I ask him who would really be effected by this and he remembers his teachers and hangs his head a bit lower. He loves them. He just hates the standardization. So he has done what he can. He has protested iReady.
So now he explains his knee socks and shorts. “I can’t go out for recess.” “Why?” I ask, though I know the answer. “I have to stay in to do iReady.” My mind flashes past all of the research he did earlier this year on the value of recess and wonder why he is trading in his favorite time of day. He doesn’t have an explanation. He is battling this expectation. He is not sure why. He doesn’t like the program but he also doesn’t like what the program stands for. He tells me he has been staying in for 3 weeks and I am surprised. “Don’t you miss it?” I ask him. “I do, he answers in a low voice.” “But I can’t do it at home.” “not even for 45 minutes a week?” I ask. His answer is in his eyes. He has drawn a line. It is a line born of stubbornness but also of individuality. He hates being asked to do something without a good rationale behind it and skipping iReady has become a statement. “I know the math.” He tells me. “I know you know it sweetie.” “It’s not just that.” he goes on. “I just don’t like how much they care about testing. It’s not about us learning. It’s about the test scores.”
Once again I try to explain that the test scores give us information about how well the school is able to help kids learn. But my heart isn’t in it.
Sometimes I believe in the system. I want kids to have equal education. I want them to have internet connections. I want Colorado to be able to stretch its meager dollars which sometimes means using from the box technological teaching. I want our wonderful teachers to be supported and have room to be creative. And sometimes I just want to skip the canned voice. Click through to the binary answer and move on to something that more complex and individual. Which is exactly how my son feels. I imagine him at his desk now as his friends shriek with pleasure over soccer in the sunshine. I can picture his slender legs showing beneath his shorts, legs crossed. I imagine he has been trained not to try to click through anymore. I hear her voice droning in his ear as he waits to enter his answer in a box.