The students with whom we work are lucky to have parents who encourage them and make them aware of their future options, including the pursuit of higher education. Still, having encountered third- and fourth-graders that talk about the importance of getting good grades so that they can go to a good college, leaves little doubt that things are different these days. Most of us never thought like this when we were kids. We studied, did homework, and earned decent grades because that's what we were supposed to do, not because we had a glowing academic future in mind. When we were that young, we weren’t burdened with such pressure. We couldn't imagine thinking about our academic futures in those terms when we were barely old enough to hold a pencil.
Standardized testing seems to have become a gateway to the promised land of learning in a way that we never experienced. Many educators worry that the "tyranny of the test" has replaced curiosity, inquiry, and self-exploration in the classroom. It can be difficult to convince children to take risks and learn to become independent thinkers when so much apparently depends on choosing the correct answer on a multiple-choice exam. Sometimes we want to tell them, "Relax, the sky won't fall if you get a B. Plus, look at how much you've improved."
We have always believed that there are many paths to success. One of those paths does involve doing well on standardized tests like the STAR test, getting good grades, and going to a prestigious college. Others, like the path taken by the brother of one of our staff members, may look a little different.
For financial reasons, he and his parents needed to be a little more creative after he graduated from high school. He had always been a free spirit who loved music, sports, and writing poetry, so the broad education he received at a community college allowed him to explore his interests. After a few semesters, he surprised everyone by announcing that he had decided to become an engineer. Because he had shown little interest in math, he had some catching up to do. A few semesters later, he had tackled the prerequisite classes at the community college and, working with his advisor and the transfer department, applied to several respected universities. The kid whose former ambitions had included farming trips to New Zealand graduated from UC Berkeley and now works at an engineering company in the Silicon Valley.
Had he followed the more conventional route, the aforementioned brother might not have met the enthusiastic professors who taught him to love math and science. Although he ended up in the same place as many of his classmates at CAL, his path allowed him to meander and explore along the way. His destination was firmly his decision, and he arrived there with rich experiences some of his more driven counterparts may have missed.
The point of this is of course to remind us that the students who don't get perfect scores on their tests are not condemned to inexorable frustration and underachievement. With the proper encouragement, most of them will do just fine. They may find their true interests later on, or they may, like the aforementioned brother, discover an unexpected talent when the pressure is turned off. If the adults in their lives support them and provide a safe environment for exploration, they will learn something far more valuable than the "right" answer. They'll learn to breathe, take risks, and enjoy the journey.