Thursday, May 2, 2013

Exams, the GATE to success?

Its almost STAR testing week in our schools here.  6 years ago, when my older one started his kinder, I started my journey of volunteering and understanding the US education system.  Before I go further, I do have to warn you that my stance on most cases makes me the black sheep in the Indian community. I am one of those parents who don't ask for homework. I am one of those parents who does not believe in tuitions simply because its elementary school not MIT. And then there are parents who say that to go to MIT, one needs tuitions and I respectfully agree to disagree with them.  

Is my child a straight A student, no he's not. Does that bother me? The first time he got a C, yes I was bothered and then I reminded myself that I flunked a subject or more in the first year of engineering college.  And that was a shock not only to me but my friends too, because I was a straight A student from Kinder to 12th. Nothing less than an A, ever.  So coming home that day, I was scared and had no idea on how to break the news to my parents.  It was one of those rare afternoons that my dad decided to come home for lunch. I quietly decide to help my mom in the kitchen and broke the news, she continued to roll the chapati and asked me to serve the food on the table. Later, she helped me tell dad.  I appreciate the fact that my parents did not loose it, they kept their calm and said, what's done is done? You decide how you want to fix this and make sure you fix it. I graduated with a gold medal in Environmental Engineering.  Not trying to blow my own trumpet here but get the point across that life prepares us for it all. This experience helped me not get upset about low grades. Even to date when he is  going through a lack of confidence phase I remind him of his mom every time. More importantly, I remind him that just because I got A's does not mean I am very intelligent or an out of the box thinker.

I did ask him n 4th grade, Would you like to be a straight A student? His answer and for the most part I quote "Mom, I am in the middle of the class. I am not the smartest and not the dumbest. Some times I get okay grades, but mostly they are good. So I think I will do fine in life. I don't have to get an A everytime." Once again, he had stumped me, I didn't know what to say. 

Honestly, even though I got all A's in school, I don't think I was super smart, but I was a good crammer :). Getting A's in school is the easiest thing to do. If every child can just cram what is written in the textbooks and spit it out, they will get A's.  What's hard is to not cram and then convey the message so accurately that it seems like you crammed it. Textbook answers are expected for the  most part. Every once in a while the student comes across a teacher who is there because she loves her students and is willing to re-read an answer to understand that unique perspective which is different from what the text book says. 

And then we have that whole question of how do you evaluate that unique perspective?. 

In India, we all learn the same thing and if a student cannot keep up with the curriculum they fail and if they are way ahead of their class, they get bored. There are'nt too many options. But in the US this difference in learning is treated interestingly. There is something called GATE student in our school district. It is the Gifted and Talented Student. How do they decide this, by a 3 hour exam in 3rd grade.  3rd grade is lower elementary. There are no grades and exams are not stress induced. The philosophy in 3rd grade is do your best. It's okay, you'll do great. The student in 3rd has no clue what GATE is and what implications it has on his long term schooling career and yet they are asked to sit through the exam. There is the option to opt your child out, but then which parent would prevent their child from being identified as gifted and talented. One such unique parent is me. I opted him out. I know he is gifted and I also know that he is 8 years old who only does something when he understands the logic and importance of the task. That's just him. To ask him to sit through that exam would be setting him up for failure. Today, if he has to sit through that exam, I am more confident of him succeeding, because he now knows why he is giving that exam. He knows that if he clears it, he gets advanced classes in middle school.  But he lost that option when he forced himself to go in 4th grade. He wanted to be with the GATE students, because they are "smarter" than the rest of the group. And we knew he wasn't ready because he was doing it for the wrong reasons, but as parents we gave him the choice to make a decision. 

I am by no means trying to undermine the importance of this program. I genuinely feel that it is a great program for those kids who are truly "out of the box" thinkers and not crammers. Because I think some kids are and they do get bored in a routine class. Even though the intent of the system is right I think the execution of it, has made it a joke.  Why I don't say anything in the school, because I have been told since my son is Non_Gate I take this stance. What can I say, I love the Indian approach to life :) 

Today we live in a society that measures everything quantitatively. There is this intense need to quantify everything. There are efforts being make to quantify even happiness. Extend the quantificaiton to school level and we have grades, the intelligence of child is measured based on one exam. The student may be unwell that day or maybe a life changing event at home has the kid disturbed, but he/she still has to give the exam and do well or else he fails.

There is something intrinsically flawed with this system. The education industry NEEDS a major disruption. 

Disruption because gone is the era when students went to the library and poured over text books. This generation has so many tools at their hands, that they need the freedom to not only express in their own unique way but also learn in their way, and that is the student pain point. The freedom to learn in a way that works for the kid is missing. 

When we have exams we have a whole group that excels, a group that is average and a group that struggles. Very little emphasis is given to the group that struggles. Its always about those who succeed. And that's just wrong. Because from these strugglers will emerge a few who didn't understand the logic of algebraic equations, but are in awe of the brilliance of a Mozart or Picasso. It is these who can look at something so ordinary as a sunflower and make it into a masterpiece.  I was very happy to recently learn that our school principal is bringing the Rembrandt program to our school.  I know it will be an outlet for many budding artists. 

The STAR testing week starts on May 9th and I am sure all parents including myself will be on high stress mode. What amazes me is that during exam time, its not the child that is stressed out, its we the parents. We, including myself have a zillion questions on the how, why and what of the exam.  I do it all the time, and its only after I have asked the question I realize the kid is probably tired and beat, the exam is over, lets just leave it that.  Why do we as parents do this? Don't know about you, but I think I do it, because it is the one thing that I cannot help him with. I can check his homework, read his essays, give ideas for his projects and even do a mock edit of his writing efforts, but I cannot give his exams. It's that feeling of helplessness, its that feeling of lack of control that translates to the zillion questions, which put my mind to ease, but probably further stress the mind of my child. 

This STAR testing week I make a promise to myself to tell my son exactly what my dad told me in the final year of engineering exams and as a matter of fact tells me even today "Just do your best and leave the rest."   


  1. As I have been told, the system has been set up to educate and test 75% of the students. That is what our tax dollars left over from prisons and war can afford.
    The alternate thinkers, the questioners, the non test takers are grouped with the 'not smart' sections, where a single teacher is forced to leave no child behind among 30 not motivated very individual kids. The best she can do is bring them up to average, reinforcing the status quo.
    As a parent, I can try to be creative with teaching, but am undermined by the current High Gate, medium gate and low gate grouping in our school.

  2. Ver true Alka. As a parent I will be faced with the same situation next year. Not looking forward to it.

    US with its common core is hoping to meet international standards without realizing that the tools given to the teachers are very different as compared to teachers in US.

    Case in point this article on Finland and its education system:

    I think the comparison is between apples and oranges. Time will tell what this brings.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Thus reminds me of an my real life india we have tution system(that i dont like or believe in). i was an ok student though very mischievious. managed to get distinction however seldom found with books. during my 10th std. my parents forced me for tuitions as i hardly read at home. the tuition teacher wud teach but i cannot understand his complicated ways...others in clasd where toppers from other schools who never had any qyestions to be asked!!! teacher was bored of me not being smart enough. n wud express the same during the class.
    as such i fidnt like tuition concept. i knew what had to do n so one day just answered the teacher: Teaching Smart students Is easy but the real teacher is the one who can make a student Smart!!!. n i left tuitions. my parents welcomed my decision. even in school teachers doubted whether i wud clear 12th n get in some gud stream.
    but well today am an engineer doing wat i like in a way i always wanted to do!!!!
    am not blaming education ststem just a simple message to the srudents out there...we all know wat we are capable of...just give it a shot (unstressed) n leave it.. u wud surely excel!!!

    1. Very true. Thanks for sharing your experience. Its an endorsement to the blogpost.

  4. I agree wid all of u...all humanbeings are different n unique in their own ways..We cannot expect every child to b a top grade student..but as a parent we expect that our child excels(which is a very common feeling). But due to such discussions I am surely motivated..My personal experience is something that I would also like to share..At school level till grade 10 I was A grader but same as Seema told I became the victim of the tuition system in my grade 11 & 12..I scored less but got into engg..there also I did not excel...I was average..sometimes below average also...than I got married after graduation. I had my two kids..than suddenly one fine morning I decided to sit for the state civil services examination..n I cracked it at the first shot..(which is very difficult) and today I serve as class1 Officer to Government of Gujarat. So success can come at any age..not necesssry thst as a kid if u excel than only u succeed...
    Nice yaar...I felt so good to share this to u all..hope u all will also not b bored to read so long comment...
    Thanks anyway Shil...for making me feel good through your blog...

    1. Bhakti.. that is very impressive and a true testament to the fact that age is not a barrier to achieve dreams. Keep it going and thanks for visiting.