07/19/2013 10:29 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2013

Stress Test


As the school year came to a close in my county, a front page story in our regional newspaper blasted a local school district for routinely boosting the scores of secondary students on state tests by one or two points to make the passing cut off point. Surely, this boost made the difference between graduating and not graduating in many cases. With all the wrath the writers and editors could muster, in headline sizes worthy of news of a terrorist attack, the district, one of the poorest in the county, already saddled with a beleaguered reputation, was dealt another blow.

A few days after reading this story, I was contemplating its meaning as I crawled through my morning commute. I had to try to put the crime in perspective. I pondered the motive and the result. I looked for the culprit. I searched for the victim.

I came up with a metaphor.

As I looked down onto the roadway of the bridge I was driving over, I noticed the expansion joints embedded in the pavement. I was curious. I did some research. According to this Wiki Article,

An expansion joint or movement joint is an assembly designed to safely absorb the heat-induced expansion and contraction of construction materials, to absorb vibration, to hold parts together, or to allow movement due to ground settlement or earthquakes. They are commonly found between sections of buildings, bridges, sidewalks, railway tracks, piping systems, ships, and other structures. Building faces, concrete slabs, and pipelines expand and contract due to warming and cooling from seasonal variation, or due to other heat sources. Before expansion joint gaps were built into these structures, they would crack under the stress induced.

I thought about the definition in light of the headline news I had read earlier. If we can understand the physical forces at work in our infrastructure development, why can't we understand the emotional forces at work in our children' development? Where are the expansion joints that allow for tolerances around stress points for our kids?

Setting a cut point, a bar, a marker of any kind, should be done with the understanding that the point is largely arbitrary and that making high stakes decisions based on a strict adherence to the marker will lead many students (and teachers) to crack under the stress. Nevertheless, as in the headline story, when a student who scores one or two points below the cutoff is allowed the space, "the expansion joint," to succeed anyway, the school district that provides the space is vilified for it. And you can be sure there will be a major investigation into this nefarious deed, citing educators who have cheated their students by lowering the standards. And this vilification is going on around the country, as educators, forced to the breaking point, seeing their students' success and their own careers obscenely narrowed and reduced to test score results, make attempts to redress the over-use of numbers as destiny.

The best educators, the engineers of child development, know the importance of safely absorbing the expansion and contraction of a child's life, allowing space for personal issues, growth pressures, family problems, peer distractions. They know how to absorb vibrations and hold parts together during the tectonic shifts of childhood. They know that setting a bar has to be tempered with the wisdom of knowing when to lower it -- and when to raise it as well.

I can hear the chorus now rising to challenge the premise. If we don't set the bar firmly we will be confusing our students about accountability and meeting goals. And... what's next? If 65 is passing and we say OK to 63 and 64, can 61 and 62 be far behind? Maybe. Maybe not.

The point is the numbers paradigm for educational success is misplaced. Setting an unforgiving line in the sand does not give the flexibility to the teacher who understands the whole story of the child. As youngsters learn and grow, caring adults know they need encouragement more than anything else. Those who know what children need work around the numbers and focus on the support. Two examples come to mind.

Recently, I heard a TED Talk in which a teacher explained her philosophy of grading her students. A student got 2 right out of 20 and she put a +2 on the paper. The teacher explained that a -18 would demoralize the student; a +2 meant he was on his way. And, can you imagine parents setting tough standards when their child begins to walk? A toddler cutoff point? Sorry, sweetheart, you took two steps too few. You fail walking.

Any time you assign a number you better be careful about tolerances -- or the material will crack. Stress cracks in our bridges and our children are deadly.

Next time you drive across a bridge be thankful that expansion joints exist. Next time you attend a school meeting, ask why there aren't more of them in our classrooms.