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The Blessing and Curse of Comparing

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The Blessing and Curse of Comparing

Monica Elias

Minutes after our children are born they take a test. Widely accepted, their Apgar scores tell us, this newborn appears in good health or there is reason for concern. The score is derived from knowing most healthy babies perform well on the Apgar, and if they falter on the Apgar, they often have problems. It’s statistics. Comparing our children to others can be critical to understanding them. But of course it’s not the whole story, it’s a quick indication of what may lie ahead.

Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree tells a gripping story of how his first-born did not fair well on the Apgar. After doctors whisked the new born away for a battery of tests prompted by leg inflexibility, they arrived at a conclusion: a leg cramp.

When I give a standardized speech-language test (and I really try not to) I’m looking for where a student stands compared to same age peers. It gives me some data, but again, not the whole picture. It is this part of an evaluation that parents, schools and lawyers want to know about most.  How many standard deviations from the norm are they? What is the cut-off for receiving paid services?

We’re told not to compare our children too much. Our kids are on different trajectories aiming and arriving at more or less the same destination. Whether the goal is sleeping through the night or reciting a sonnet, we’re told our kids will get there in time. Most parents know when their children stumble and struggle more than their classmates. They get them evaluated, to compare them to peers more formally.

Test results are scary—who wants their child defined by a set of numbers?

Results may tell us your child needs a little support, is on an alternate path from peers or needs a different X and Y-axis to chart success. This can be a painful realization, taking months to years.

Much of the world still puts all their eggs in the test basket as the only criteria for success. If, for example you ace the admissions test for Stuyvesant High School, you’re in. It’s irrelevant if you’ve performed at Carnegie Hall or are the class valedictorian.

We know tests don’t tell us the whole story, however when is comparing your child relevant? It is relevant to know the range of typical and if your child is in that range. If you don’t usually see your child among peers and have concerns, ask a teacher. They usually spend a lot more time with your child than you do. It can be a relief to know there is a slight articulation weakness as you suspected, or what is typical for a bilingual child. Test results do not solely define your child, just selected aspects of their growth.

I have a love-hate relationship with testing, mostly hate, to be honest. I am vehemently against the mountain of testing given in public schools. I had no idea conveying this to my son would result in his refusal to fill in any bubbles on a standardized test answer sheet. When asked why, he pointed to his reasons written on the answer sheet. The proctor went straight to the dean, and I considered homeschooling a decent option after they’d kick my son out.

Thankfully little fallout ensued.

I now hail loudly, ‘Do Your Best on the Stupid Test!’

Some tests are inane, some are helpful, and yes, some are necessary evils (think back to your SAT days). Giving the right one at the right time can make a world of difference. An evaluation for Speech and Language can explain frustrations and guide therapy. Results can ally fears, help families, and most importantly benefit your child. The next time your child, whether they’re 4 or 14, takes a standardized test, consider what the purpose is and how results will help them. It may well be a window into how they are learning and what they are capable of at this point in time.   

 

Monica Elias, MA CCC-SLP

(speech pathologist who occasionally administers tests).