failing report card

Last month we got a letter from our school district. Standardized test scores were in, and kiddo hadn’t achieved proficiency in math. Again. This time there are consequences. Come September, kiddo will be repeating algebra.

A year ago, in the office of kiddo’s newly assigned high school counselor, I had the unhappy task of trying to explain why I thought my child should repeat pre-algebra, despite having passed it.

Unhappy because passing a class but being unable to pass the state’s standardized test for that class was a pattern we’d seen since second grade. Because there’d never been an option for a repeat. Just a math packet to complete with your child over the summer, and hope that next year’s teacher could provide the key to standardized success.

Unhappy because we really HAD tried. Had done all the summer math packets. Had done extra math review over weekends and school breaks. Had spent three years of cyber middle school wondering if we were borderline cheating; if other parents did as much re-teaching and directing on the homework and hand-holding during tests as we did.

Unhappy because my child was sitting next to me while I explained, and I couldn’t be subtle about it. “This is the recommendation from the middle school. I agree with it, and even fought for it. Trust me, if quizzed right now, you’d swear this child never saw pre-algebra before.” And my kiddo, squirming uncomfortably next to me, knowing I spoke the truth, but also hearing the disappointment. The judgement rendered. The concept of “you are bad at math” being reinforced yet again, though that was the last thing on earth I wanted to be doing.

Unhappy because the counselor said pre-algebra in 9th grade wasn’t possible unless kiddo was in the special education track.

“No! Don’t put me in with those kids! People will think I’m a retard!” kiddo cried out, and my special needs child spewing that kind of insult against other special needs kids made me unhappy in a whole other way.

Kiddo ended up in an algebra class for reluctant math learners, where half of the students were repeating the class. The teacher, though experienced, had never taught a group like this before. “It’s taken me six months,” Mr. W said at our second parent-teacher conference, “but I’ve finally figured out how to reach these kids. They’re finally starting to tell me the concepts they never understood from years ago. The light bulbs are going on. Your child is having a-ha moments. Your child is not bad at math.”

We know. And yet…

Poor performance is also about attitude. I got an email from Mr. W at the end of April, saying he wished kiddo would come back mentally from spring break like the rest of the class had, because there was a quiz on a new concept at week’s end. We tried – two evenings of math cram sessions with mom and dad weren’t enough to make the concept clear.

After that it was cram sessions for the standardized test. Kiddo is smart, and years ago realized standardized tests didn’t count toward a final grade or extra credit. A good score gave no reward. A bad score brought no punishment. Testing itself was a hassle. Why bother to try hard? Saying “this year it’s different” made barely a dent in eight years of kiddo’s testing experience. Attitude won out. After a week, we decided fighting with our child every night about a subject area kiddo had no interest in wasn’t worth it. We accepted the imminent failure. We all moved our attention to other subjects.

“You really want to repeat algebra?” we’d asked, starting after kiddo’s abysmal midterm.

“I think I do,” kiddo said. “I think ‘half’ accurately reflects my understanding of algebra right now. The only reasons I’m still passing are attendance and homework grades, and that’s only because you help me with homework and make sure I go to school. That’s YOU. I think if I can’t reproduce my homework on a test, I shouldn’t pass the class.” Which is very mature, and exactly the point I’d been trying to make in the counselor’s office.

“What if you got Mr. W again?” I asked during a long walk kiddo and I took recently. “Oh, no,” was kiddo’s groaned response. Because it’s possible that kiddo will once again have the teacher who said to stop blaming the math concepts and accommodations or lack thereof, and told kiddo for the first time that failing was half attitude.

“I think I’ve learned about as much math as I’m going to. If I have to pass this standardized test to graduate, maybe I should just drop out now,” kiddo said, the pessimist baiting the perfectionist in me.

“What if it was French?” I asked, rephrasing in terms of kiddo’s favorite class. “If you took French One over again with the same teacher, would you still get better at French?” Kiddo admitted to yes. “What if you took French One over with a different teacher, with a different classroom style? Could you pick up different things, like maybe a trick for remembering that irregular verb you struggled with all year?” Kiddo allowed it was possible. “Alright, then, don’t give up before you even get there,” I said. “Do your level best and see what else you can learn before you retry the standardized test.”

For now, repeating algebra is about seeing concepts again and getting more practice time. Filling in knowledge gaps. About our child finally being taken seriously when saying, “I’m in over my head.” About breaking the habit of attitude, because kiddo doesn’t need to cope with apathy, or punish everyone around by acting out anymore. It’s about owning failure when it’s smaller and fixing it before it affects other things, like a college class or a job.

And that’s not failure at all. That’s progress.

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Judah Kosterman grew up where farms met factories in the Midwest. She earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and then did two things she’d always talked about – moved to the big city and started travelling. On something between a whim and a dare, she took a job in management and moved to the East Coast. She met a great guy. She did two more things on her list – got married and went to grad school. She also did a couple of things which hadn’t occurred to her earlier, namely, moving to the South and applying her skills to the non-profit sector. Which is how she found herself working at the American Red Cross on 9/11. She’s been working for non-profits, small businesses, and community organizations ever since. By far the most challenging, exciting, and disruptive thing she ever did was to have a kid in the post-9/11 world. Becoming a parent has made her far more aware of the problems that sit at the intersection of mental, emotional, physical, and environmental health. Judah blogged about these issues for a couple of years for 4700 Chiropractic / Rosetree Wellness Center, and is thrilled to return to this form. Judah can often be found tending her garden in the Philly ‘burbs. She reviews books which give her food for thought at She also has an ever-evolving profile on LinkedIn. Visit her website to read more!