Middle School. Those two words resurrect feelings of struggle and angst in our hearts. Most adults when asked look back on that time in our lives as a bumbling blur of self-absorption and uncertainty. We all have been there, lumbering through the gawk, and made it through to the other side. Middle school experiences color our lives and shape us into our future selves.
As a mom, it is interesting to witness the experience from the other side. This weekend, I had the pleasure of watching my son perform in his middle school production of Oliver! Of course I sat smiling and proud as he sang on stage, but when the student playing Nancy arrived on stage, I was spell-bound.
Because I teach in the same district as my children, I often exchange my Mom-hat for my Teacher-hat. "Nancy" was one of my students in elementary school. A "struggling reader," she had qualified for reading support services, and I worked with her throughout her 6th grade year. She was a hard worker with a love for books and reading despite her struggles with text. I remember that she was enthralled with Sharon Creech's Walk Two Moons, and we worked through the story together, solving words and discussing character development, plot, and themes.
Three times a year, in our school-wide benchmark testing blitz, she would score in the "intensive" or "strategic" range. Her progress monitoring scores would show a slight incline on her ROI (rate of improvement), but according to the data, she was at risk for reading failure. However, once she took the stage this weekend, I had no doubt that she could interpret Nancy's motivation as a character. Her fluency rang through with a British accent, and her voice... the instant she began to sing, "Nancy" stole the show. I had no idea she had that amazing voice inside of her.
With all of our data, and testing, and accountability, we do our best to give students the instruction that they need. We discuss students in terms of their scores and their performance in class. We label them "strugglers," "low," "intensive," or "below benchmark." And we truly care about their success in school. As teachers, we wouldn't be in the profession if we felt otherwise. This weekend, listening to Nancy sing and watching her perform magic onstage, I was struck with the magnitude of a reminder that we cannot limit a student's potential by their test score. Onstage, Nancy was far from below benchmark. Her performance brought tears to my eyes, and she received a standing ovation from a packed house.
Reflecting afterwards, I asked myself, is she struggling? Low? Below benchmark? These labels we assign are so finite and conclusive. I know that we used those terms to describe Nancy during our data meetings. We use those terms to describe many students who do not meet the standards. I had to pause following the performance and re-evaluate my original determination. Yes, data is important. Data informs our instruction. But data can also be limiting, and it does not define a student, a child, or pre-suppose her potential.
No, Nancy is not Below Benchmark. Quite the opposite. In my assessment, based on her performance that day, she is absolutely gifted. Of course I cannot see into the future, but I no longer color my thoughts about her success as an adult with the labels I assigned in the past. I am confident she will have a fine, fine life.