My letter to a 5th grader despondent over ELA score

Hi Mr. Gates,

Were you a good test-taker? I wasn’t and neither is one of my 5th grade ELLs. In fact, he isn’t a true ELL but he hasn’t yet tested proficient on the NYSESLAT (you know about this standardized test from my previous letters to you), which is the only way out of ESL.

He is despondent after learning that his ELA cut score isn’t high enough for automatic promotion to the 6th grade. In my letter to him, I reveal my own struggles with standardized testing. -K

Dear ________,

I know you are feeling down about your ELA score. I have been in your shoes many times before, and know what a struggle it is – how so very hard it is – to lift yourself up from the crushing disappointment.

________, I was a terrible standardized test-taker. It was very hard for me to concentrate and focus on reading passages, especially when faced with so many long ones. The time limit also distracted me and made me nervous. I felt rushed. As a result, I would panic and freeze; my mind would go blank. I couldn’t seem to remember anything I had read and re-read. The information got mixed up in my head and the multiple choice answers confused me. It was such a painful experience for me that I simply selected the best-sounding answer just to be done with it. Is that what it’s like for you?

Have you heard of the SAT? It’s the test that high school kids take in order to get into college. My SAT scores in math and ELA were low. Even though I had a tutor and pushed myself to take the test five times, my scores never improved. In spite of this, I was accepted to every college I applied to, and I thrived as a history major. The universities saw that I was talented in other ways. After college I went on to get a Master’s degree in Latin American studies, but I went to England for this. I prefer their essay-based assessments. I never once had to take a multiple choice test over there.

Please know that you are not alone. We all demonstrate our intelligence and knowledge differently. I had the pleasure of teaching you in 2nd grade and again in 5th grade. Like me, you are a careful, thoughtful worker. You work best when you are given enough time to think about what you want to say. You are a strong writer and you have excellent ideas. You just need to complete your work in your own time.

I want you to know that in my free time I am working hard to speak out on behalf of learners like you and me. It’s not right that so much importance is placed on tests like the ELA and math, which don’t accurately reflect all that we have learned. Most – if not all – teachers believe this.

Hang in there. Ms. ________ and I believe in you. You have so much to contribute to class _______ and beyond. Feel free to reach out to me next year. I am here for you and will always be your advocate.

All best,
Ms. Lapham

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4 thoughts on “My letter to a 5th grader despondent over ELA score

  1. Although my students were in high school, the continuous stream of tests they were forced to take was mind-boggling. I had AP Lit & Comp students with A’s in my course do poorly on their ESL tests, even though they were better English speakers and writers than some of my native speaker students. I, too, am a terrible test taker and because I barely passed the Watson-Glaser assessment for my masters, I was placed on probation for the first semester. I was mortified! When I graduated with a 4.0 in my Masters in Written Communications, I called the registrar’s office to make sure that probation censure was no longer part of my records. They told me that it was a non-issue after my stellar performance in classes.
    What the test-makers don’t understand is that you can’t quantify critical thinking with a multiple choice test any more than you can tell if a cake is good without tasting it. The test makers–and Bill Gates and his ilk–are merely in it for the money and that is a sad statement on the state of education in this country.
    I’m sure your student appreciated your compassionate response.

  2. Thank you for this. My wife and I opted our son out of the testing this year but who is to know if that option will be there moving forward. With the volume of children who “refused” I feel they will take steps to avoid this mass action. The issues this child is facing are the same as my son. He is slow to process what he reads but he gets it. Additionally, his ability to write is difficult. To be able to speak to my son about how others have a shared experience will be encouraging for him.

  3. Pingback: My letter to a 5th grader despondent over ELA score — Katie Lapham | Teachers' Letters to Bill Gates

  4. Pingback: Remainders: Holding the line between curriculum and standards | GothamSchools

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