I was still in college the first time someone cried in a parent-teacher conference with me. I had found a summer job at a free enrichment program for public school students. One of our students had just taken her first-ever standardized test, a practice version of the entrance examination for an elite magnet high school. She had scored in something like the fourteenth percentile.
“I don’t understand,” her mother told me. “She does all her work in school. She does her homework. She does extra. I stay on top of her grades from the beginning. Always, she is getting As. Always, I think she is doing well.”
Even then, at the beginning of my teaching career, I could see how this had happened. A quiet, diligent, well-behaved girl who turned in all her assignments—of course her grades were great. But she couldn’t read grade-level texts. Neither could many of her classmates at their majority-minority, wrong-side-of-the-tracks public school.
Our summer program offered open enrollment and free enrichment; it tended to attract motivated students with motivated parents. The kids largely earned decent grades. Still, we took for granted that most would need remediation, extra support in basic skills they should have mastered long before middle school. Our strongest students would have qualified as just barely at grade level relative to national norms. What we called striving for excellence was really a pitched battle to break even.