At the beginning of last year, a girl entered my classroom for the first time with the announcement that she wasn’t good at math. Her parents and a former teacher both came to talk to me about how she’d struggled and wanted to do better. She had never been able to pass the math AIMS, but last year she only missed it by one point. Everyone really wanted last year to be her year.
I poured effort into her, but she was a great kid and also poured effort into herself. Before anyone knew it, she was excelling at the material. She worked hard, no matter how much her popular friends might try to distract her, and always asked for help when she needed it. She became one of my go-to kids for a right answer and was regularly one of the kids who finished early and went on to challenge material. She maintained an average in the 90s for the rest of the school year. She was proud, I was proud, her parents were proud. She started telling me how much she loved math.
There was no way she was going to fail AIMS. No way. She was doing so well that she often kept up with kids who always got the “Exceeds” label. (Did we dare to hope she would Exceed, too?) When the test days happened, I watched her and could see how nervous she was. I was worried for her too, but deep down I can’t have been that concerned. I was practicing my victory speech.
I got scores back in early June, and something went terribly wrong. Not only were my scores low overall (lower than my first year, when I was blatantly a worse teacher in every way!), but this girl hadn’t passed the math test. She passed reading and science with flying colors, and missed the math cutoff by a couple of questions. Again.
I thought I felt bad when I learned that, but that wasn’t the worst moment. The low point was when she got her own scores, just a couple of days ago. I got two text messages in a matter of minutes. One was from a family friend of hers that I know. It said, “She just got her AIMS test scores and she got Approaches… I’m with her now trying to make her feel better.” The other was from the student herself, and just said, “Hi ms. mathinaz i thought you should know i didnt pass math aims :(”
Had I hoped I wouldn’t have to face her? Definitely. It’s one thing to be upset about overall scores being low, when I can come up with justifications, explanations, excuses and commit to working harder and being better next year. It’s quite another thing when an individual student has her life affected by one of those low scores. She starts to believe things she shouldn’t. My hard work was in vain. Maybe my new-found confidence was unmerited. I’m just not good at math and maybe I never ever will be. And guess whose fault that is? Guess who did that to a child? Me.
The worst part is that none of what I’m afraid she feels is anywhere close to true. I know I gave her rigorous work, and I know it was well aligned to what Arizona expects of eighth graders. I know she learned what was on that test and I know she was very, very good at it. I know how quickly she picks things up, how well she analyzes, how patiently she calculates, and what an excellent problem solver she is. I know I sent her to honors math next year and I know she belongs there and will do well. Yet I also know that somehow I didn’t prepare her well enough for that test, and I didn’t give her the ability to prove what I know to herself or to anyone else who sees those scores. How did I mess that up so badly?
For the record, I told her all of this when she told me about her scores. I told her I was sorry and wished I had an explanation but didn’t. I told her how great she is, how hard she works, how impressed I’ve been, how well she understands concepts, and how deeply convinced I am that she belongs in honors math. Now I just have to hope that she still believes me.