Dear Son, You’re not stupid.

You’re Distinguished. Despite what The Tests May Tell You.

Last Spring, my children’s elementary and middle schools were heavy in preparation for the beginning of K-PREP (Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress) –you know — the “standardized” tests that measure your child’s mastery over core content. The tests that tell your child if s/he is ‘smart’ or ‘stupid’, or maybe somewhere in-between. Of course that’s not what the intent is. But that’s what some children feel those tests tell us.

Before I open this can of worms, let me say that I understand the whole testing thing. It is necessary. It is evil. (Kidding. Sort of.) There’s a lot on the line this week. There is accountability for our schools. There is great pressure. The teachers feel it, and the students know it. Children have been filling in those little ovals with their #2 pencils since before any of us can remember. I completely understand why we do it. There are a gazillion bloggers out there discussing it right now. There are countless articles addressing it. And yet there are mothers and fathers pulling their hair out over it, because of how it makes some of our children feel.

My children’s elementary school hosted a Luau the day before testing began. It was a big deal. It was cute. It was festive. It was fun. My Facebook news feed was filled with photos of smiling children in grass skirts and flower leis and photos from an adorably decorated school foyer. The school Luau showed that the administration and staff cared about making this a positive ‘thing’ for our children. That they care about them doing their best. That they support them in their effort.

At the Luau, the children were ‘dancing their way to Distinguished’. There’s THAT word. It’s a praise, yet simultaneously a curse. It’s a word that has been on my boys’ minds this week, and for a good portion of the school year every time the proficiency review tests are returned. Because, in the school setting, it is a word never or rarely used to describe them.

My 9-year old Charlie saw this screenshot on my desktop as he walked by while I was writing. He read the word on the screen and this is what he said: “Oh, DISTINGUISHED. You must be writing about LOUISA (my 11-year old Distinguished student).” I got up and followed him and said, “No, Char Char, I am actually writing about YOU. Because YOU are Distinguished.” And it broke my heart.

Looking back at my years in school, I guess I would have been that Distinguished student. And today my daughter is that Distinguished student. But what about the ones who aren’t? What about the child who climbs into the car after school and tells you that he was embarrassed… because while many students were going upstairs to “receive awards and fun stuff,” he was taken back to his classroom for donut holes. “I mean, donut holes… really?” Henry (my 13-year old non-Distinguished son) asked me. Not that he didn’t wolf down those donut holes, of course, but I get his point.

Then he said what I hate to hear from any child:

“It made me feel STUPID.”

I cringed. I immediately began my loving rebuttal, which ended up more like a diatribe against testing.

Fast forward two hours later when the younger two got off the bus, I asked them about the Luau. “It was fun, but kinda sad,” Louisa said. She explained how everyone was being called up in front to receive these medals for being Proficient or Distinguished on last year’s tests, and the rest of the kids just had to watch while their name was never called. Meanwhile, she is wearing the Distinguished blue medal around her neck. And my younger son, Charlie, said he would never get one of those. Don’t get me wrong. I love this school. And I have utmost respect and admiration for the teachers and staff. They are amazing. And I love that our Principal individually and sincerely awarded each higher-achieving child for his/her accomplishments. It is a way to honor those who rightly deserve it, and it gives children something for which to aim. I am just thinking about the children who will possibly never hear their name called for their red or blue ribbon.

And I want to tell them: “It’s not the medal that makes you Distinguished. It is what’s inside the heart of the one wearing it.”

Recently, Henry’s middle school Montessori teachers asked parents to send in a note of encouragement to be given to their child on the morning of testing. I love that (and his teachers). And this is a paraphrase of what my letter said:

Dear Son, We are thinking of you as you take your tests, praying that you will be focused and understand the questions. But just know that these kinds of tests, though necessary for school reports, do not show your gifts and reveal your true character! These tests do not show…
~ your kindness
~ your compassion
~ your
sweet heart and fun, silly side
They don’t show how you make an ostracized girl in your classroom feel like she is important and loved. They don’t show how you tenderly take care of nature and all of God’s creatures. They don’t show how you listened and made an elderly man with Alzheimers feel that what he said was important to you. They don’t show how you saw the lady in Costco drop her card and chased her down in the parking lot so that you could return it. These tests do not measure the most important things in life. They never will. But, do your best, try your hardest, don’t rush– and know we are so pleased with you, simply for doing your best…

So when it comes down to it, I guess I do hate testing. (But, sigh, I get it.) I am grateful for the opportunity for education. I am grateful for awards given and lessons learned. I am grateful for teachers and staff who tirelessly encourage our children, both for their academic success and otherwise. And for a child who has yet to receive that Distinguished blue ribbon, I am grateful for teachers who hand out “Referrals” like this one:

And I am grateful that my youngest son, who might not ever receive one of those medals for his academic work, has a healthy understanding of what would make the world a happier place. And it doesn’t involve blue medals:

So when we venture into the rounds of standardized testing, I will try to get my children to bed early (eek). I will try to feed them a decent breakfast. I will make sure Henry takes sharpened pencils.

But most importantly, I will remind them that whether they receive a medal next year or not, they are Distinguished. And so is every child sitting in the classroom beside them… in one way or another. In my sight, and in the sight of the One who created them.

Originally published at on May 17, 2015.