Sunday, December 14, 2008

Slow Processing Does Not Mean Unintelligent

My daughter, Ali, is in 8th grade in a public school. She is in both math and science honors classes, in the Junior Honor Society, and has always been a good student. Now, I don't tell you this to brag because, as anyone who follows me at all knows, Ali is struggling in some of her classes this year. Since she has always been in enrichment classes and honors classes, I couldn't understand her poor test grades. At first, I chalked it up to a poor attitude and harrassed her into studying more. Okay, really all I did was make her cry every night.
Finally, I decided to try a different tact. I got her a tutor for math and was pleased to see progress. Her review sheets and homeworks were all receiving A's and she was feeling better about her skills. Last week she took her first test since getting the tutor. She was well prepared and looking forward to success. She got a 75%.

How did this happen? She got an A on the review sheet, her tutor said she was ready. What went wrong? I looked at the test and noticed that, on a four page test (yes, four pages!), she got everything correct on the first three pages. On page four, she got everything wrong.
It turns out that Ali is a slow processor. Okay, this is really nothing new. She has always needed time, after hearing a direction, to actually begin the task. She needs lots of wait time during discussions. We have always just dealt with this at home. In school, it never affected her before because tests were never timed or were never so long. She was always the last one finished with a test, but managed to do well. She understood, as I do, that speed has NOTHING to do with intelligence and skill.
So I emailed her teacher and asked if it would be possible, as it was in 7th grade, for Ali to complete the tests during lunch. I didn't want her to get extra help. I just wanted her to feel proud of her capabilities and being timed was not working for her. The response I got was an emphatic no. "Honors students never get extra time for tests. They don't need it. Only children with IEPs get extra time." Translation - if Ali needs extra time, she does not belong in the honors class.
Frustrated, I discussed this situation with my co-teacher, Christine, and my aide, who has two classified children of her own. It started a discussion about the children in school who are not classified. In our classroom, we give every child what he/she needs. Who decided that only classified students need extra time or computers to type stories or fidget toys to play with or breaks during lessons? Why have we allowed ourselves to cater only to classified children in this way? Why is it acceptable?
It is my belief that every child has special needs. Some are obvious and those students usually have IEPs. But some are not. Do you have a student who is capable of being successful on a test if he/she just had ten more minutes to finish? Do you have a student who understands a complicated book if it is read to him/her? Do you have a student who starts to fade halfway through your lesson? Do you have a student who can explain content verbally better than in writing? Why not give all of these students what they need, even if you don't have a piece of paper telling you you need to do so? Shouldn't every child have the opportunity to be successful?
It is time to really embrace differentiated instruction. Stop waiting for a piece of paper to tell you you need to offer services. Look around. What do you see? How can you help your children be successful in all areas? In the end, you will have those "fall through the cracks" students succeeding like never before, the classified students not feeling so obvious about their disabilities, and the top students finding that they have skills they didn't even know existed. Shouldn't we all want this?
'Just Keep Walking'


Paul Bogush said...

Sounds like the teacher is a slow processor not Ali. So the teacher is not grading understanding but speed?

Going through a similar thing this year with my kid. How can someone be so oblivious to something that seems so obvious!

Dean Mantz said...

Einstein was considered a "genius" but was a struggling scholar in other areas of academics. Therefore, would he not need assistance in some areas and be able to provide assistance in other areas? It sounds like this instructor wants to group students rather than seeing them as individual human beings and maturing adults. Out of all honesty, if I were back in the public education classroom, I would do all I can to implement D.I.

Lee Kolbert said...

You struck a nerve here. I've always been of the mind that we need to understand WHAT we are assessing when we do assess. Are we testing speed or are we testing knowledge of content? There are teachers who grade spelling on a science test; taking off 1/2 a point here and there for misspelled words. Not assigning those points to spelling mind you, but letting those missed points impact their science scores. The student who is a poor speller will NEVER get an A in science???

Maybe I'm late to the party here, but I never did get this.

This teacher is not alone in her thinking, unfortunately. Too many teachers (understandably) feel powerless in their schools and districts with all the mandates and micro-controlling, that it seems that their sense of control is bottle necked into their classrooms instead. Not realizing they're being rigid and in many cases, punitive, teachers feel they must be "fair" to all. Yet in fact, they are NOT being fair to all; sometimes being fair to NONE.

It is the rare teacher who sees such patterns in her students, identifies the need for a modification and just does whatever she can to ensure an accurate assessment. I mean, what's the harm in letting the student show what she knows, for heaven's sake???

It's unfortunate that we would need any type of legal document to force a teacher's hand to do a simple thing, but that's why there are 504 Plans. If all teachers would just do the right thing, why would be need things like 504 Plans?

Since you have already spoken with the teacher, I would take it to the principal. That's such a tough call for us, when we are teachers ourselves, but you and I know that most parents would go straight to the principal first! There is no doubt that your conversation with the principal would be positive and that you would both be in agreement as to whose "side" you are all on (your daughter's).

I'm sorry your daughter is having to experience this in her class. I hope it all works out.

Ernie Easter said...

Slow processing might not qualify one for an IEP, but might for a 504 plan which would carry the same accommodations. Check your state regs for guidance.

My question about the honors class - if a student was hearing impaired and needed an interpreter plus extra time would they be eligible for this class?

The good folks at Wright's Law might have some insights. They specialize in helping families with children with learning differences.

TJ Shay said...


I was reminded immediately of a great speaker I heard at an "At-Risk" conference, Bill Page. One thing he said that struck me deeply was (paraphrased), "Who you are as a teacher comes down to what you believe in. If you believe the kid is failing because they didn't try, don't care, or are dumb, you teach that way. If you believe the kid would learn if you just taught in a way that they could learn, you do that."

From his website: "At-Risk Students: A Point of Viewing
A summative position on the reasons and remedies for at-risk problems

At-risk students cannot be expected to increase their achievement unless teachers improve their effectiveness. And teachers cannot improve their effectiveness unless they are willing to abandon teaching procedures that have failed and adopt strategies that take into account that at-risk students begin their schooling with different experiences and different perception of themselves, school and the world."

As the person who led the 'Student Assistance Team" for years, I can tell you this situation is ALL TOO COMMON! I regularly had meetings with teachers that were like beating my head against a wall. I eventually had to get out of the program.

It's frightening to me that people become teachers and then forget what they were put in the classroom to do -- TEACH! ALL kids in ways that the kid can understand.

Lisa Parisi said...

Thank you all for your comments. Ernie, my daughter is neither "classifiable or health impaired". She is an average student who cannot take tests. I think we have all taught these students and we assume they fail because they don't work hard enough. TJ is right. We are responsible for a student's successes and failures. All students can learn. It is time to start teaching ALL students instead of expecting students to fit into our mold.

Tammy Worcester said...

Great post! I heard someone say once that in our current school system, TIME is the constant - and LEARNING is the variable. We need to create (or allow) a system where those are reversed.

Moturoa said...

Things change and hopefully this situation will too. I remember when I first started teaching I used to growl if children shared their work too much- now I encourage them to share and collaborate and learn together.

I know how hard it is to write and it takes me a long time just thinking about what to write before committing my ideas to the keyboard. Report writing takes me forever- I would hate to have to churn them out in a tight timeframe - the stress of that would make matters even worse.

Allanah K

A. Mercer said...

Hmm, she may not be "classifiable" BUT 504 is for a known or *suspected* impairment. You do not need a diagnosis for a 504 plan. Also, the district is likely violating IDEA.
I would consider a complaint to the admin, district, or your local office of Civil Rights for not getting a 504 accommodation.

Lisa Parisi said...

Once again, though, Alice, I ask why does a teacher need a piece of paper to offer accommodations? If a child can better show learning and understanding with a bit more time or by moving to a quieter place to work or...than shouldn't that just be part of what we do to find out what our students know?

Paul Hamilton said...

Thanks for sharing this frustrating and painful personal experience, Lisa. I believe you are right when you say that every child has "special needs" of one sort or another. That's why every child deserves to be in a classroom like the one that you and Christine provide, where every child is given what he/she needs.

I wish there was a way of relaying this conversation into staff rooms everywhere. It seems to me that the majority of teachers still suffer from an inability to recognize that each child's learning needs are unique, and that each learner requires unique supports and tools if they are to succeed. In this respect, it is the teachers who suffer from serious impairment. Sadly, the special needs and limitations of teachers are having harmful consequences in the lives of many of their students!