Advocating for your child when the school district won’t

“There is no school equal to a decent home and no teacher equal to a virtuous parent.”
-Ghandi

We recently learned that sometimes the very entity you hope is looking out for your child’s academic success can fail you in a big way. Last May, we received a letter in the mail telling us that our youngest daughter, L, was placed in the Common Core Math Pathway. These pathways, which are designated at the end of fifth grade, have been very controversial in our school district because they determine children’s math classes throughout high school.

The Common Core Pathway, or slowest path as it happens to be, does not give the students Pre-Calculus early enough to adequately prepare them for the SAT. We had heard of parents appealing their children’s placement, but my husband and I didn’t give it much thought because we assumed our daughter would place in the Accelerated or Exceptional Pathways. After all, she was just as good at math as her older brother, who placed in the Accelerated Pathway just one year prior, and she had a natural proclivity for STEM—math in particular. As such, you can imagine how shocked we were when we learned that she didn’t.

When we looked closely at her scores, we saw she had an above average score for the ITBS, but she received a zero for the CogAT. We learned that if a student did not score above a certain score on the CogAT, the student was given zero “domain points.” We assumed this must have been the case. Upon further inspection, we learned that L didn’t have a CogAT score at all! You see, she moved in with us from her bio-mom’s house in a different school district in January, and for whatever reason, her old school did not give her the CogAT.

As a result, we appealed the decision, noting it was not a proper placement for her because she did not have an opportunity to take the CogAT to prove her abilities. We told them that as her parents, we strongly believed the next pathway up, the Accelerated Pathway, would be more appropriate for her. A month later, we received a letter in the mail that our request was denied. L would remain in the Common Core Pathway.

That’s when I kicked it into high gear. I contacted the name and number at the bottom of the letter, who I learned was an analyst who served as a “gatekeeper” for the administration on this topic. She was armed with a calm voice and lots of pre-packaged compelling data points—she was the perfect person to walk overzealous parents insisting their child was gifted, off the ledge.

I explained L’s situation and how she didn’t belong in Common Core. Her father and I simply wanted to set her up for academic success, and we didn’t feel she would be appropriately challenged in the slowest pathway, I told her. I asked if L could have an opportunity to take the CogAT and prove she deserved to be in the Accelerated Pathway.

That’s when I was told that the CogAT was not a math test. The district simply used it for that purpose since it was already a State-required test, and they didn’t want to require the students to take another, more appropriate, one. 

It was a “test to identify students who were truly gifted.”

When I asked that L have an opportunity to take the CogAT, she told me only 50 out of 700 students in the entire district scored as high as she would need to score to be put in the Accelerated Pathway, and it was unlikely our daughter would score that high. She recommended L continue in Common Core, and if we still felt it wasn’t a good fit for her, we could appeal again in the spring of L’s sixth grade year. Our chances of approval were much higher then, she told me. If I wasn’t satisfied with this explanation and approach, I was welcome to take my concerns up the chain to district administrators.

That’s exactly what I did.

It took three emails, a phone call, and an escalation email to the Assistant Superintendent before I received a response from the administrator in charge of the Math Pathway Program. I then waited weeks for an in-person meeting, only to be called by her assistant the day before the scheduled meeting to tell me she needed to reschedule for the following month. I told her that was unacceptable. I planned childcare for my baby, and I had already waited weeks for this. She said she had time on her calendar that afternoon, if I could make it work, almost certainly a throw away offer because she knew I likely didn’t have childcare. I said I’d be there. I texted a friend who lived down the street to watch our baby, and I gathered my data and armed myself to fight for our daughter.

The administrator also came armed to the teeth with data. I learned before the meeting that she had a reputation for being stubborn and not changing her mind even in the face of surmounting evidence. As someone who used to brief U.S. policymakers in Washington D.C., some of whom were very difficult customers, I wasn’t intimidated. I diplomatically went back and forth with her for an hour, and I think she found I was a formidable opponent. It was clear she wasn’t expecting a well-educated, polished speaker who wasn’t going to back down when it came to her child’s education.

The administrator repeatedly told me that L “needed the gift of time.” She told me she didn’t come to my work and presume to be an expert, and similarly, I shouldn’t tell the experts who made L’s pathway decision how to do their job. I told her the “experts” who sat around the table did not know our daughter like we do. L had only been in the district for two months when this decision was made, and she was missing a test score that was instrumental in the placement decision. Why didn’t one of those experts speak up and say that L needed to be tested in order to make a proper decision? Why was she not given the same opportunity that every other student was given? There was no data that indicated L would struggle in a higher placement, so why not give her a chance?

After my insistence, the administrator agreed to let L take the CogAT. I worked through the analyst with whom I spoke initially to schedule a time for L to take the test. My husband and I crossed our fingers that L would do well enough on the test to be placed where we knew she deserved to be, but we were anxious knowing that the test wasn’t meant to measure math abilities at all.

L came home from taking the test feeling nervous, and we all anxiously awaited her test results. We received a call the following day, telling us L scored a 125, well above a 116, the score necessary to place her in the Accelerated Pathway.

She blew it out of the water!

Not only were we ecstatic, we were vindicated.

We know that if it weren’t for our advocacy and intervention, L would not have had the opportunity to prove her abilities and thus be put in the best pathway for her. It begs the question, how many other children are placed in an inappropriate pathway yet their parents have trusted that the district knows best? Or simply aren’t a stay at home parent like myself who has the time to ride the district until their child gets what he or she deserves?

The school district’s website says that they are “committed to preparing all students to meet their highest potential.” This, unfortunately, wasn’t our experience.

Telling us that the test was for children who were “truly gifted” and that L likely would not score as high as she needed to score was unacceptable. Do not tell me my child is not gifted. Do not tell me my child can’t do something. Give her a chance. She will show you what she can do.

We strongly believe we should never count a child out without giving her a chance to prove her abilities.

I sent this feedback to the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent. If they don’t know when and how they’ve failed, they can’t improve.

I also sent this feedback to the administrator who sat across the table from me earlier this summer and insisted my daughter was not ready. That she couldn’t do it. I thanked her for helping us drive home an important life lesson to our daughter—do not let anyone ever tell you that you can’t do something.

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