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The Valid Ideot Detector 

What do tests really measure?

Published October 1, 2011 at 4:00 a.m.

My son David's mind is like a wild pony. I don't want to see it tamed by regulated thought, which probably means I'm in for a fight with everyone who tries to train him.

I recently attended my first parent-teacher conference at David's school. Sitting on two tiny chairs with our knees hitting the table, his first-grade teacher showed me how David compares to the "standards." He is equal or above on most things, but he fell short in one area: assessing the number of dots on a flash card.

My mind went numb. In all fairness, I'm not even sure what his teacher was really saying. I slipped into a Never Land of "below average" and "standards" and "dots." Is she speaking English? I wondered. Do I?

She suggested that David might not have experience in this area because he was in Singapore last year. The rest of the class mastered the skill in kindergarten. Huh?

I guess David was too busy learning Mandarin and studying architecture and measuring in the metric system and building his own abacus. Unfortunately, the skill of dot identification was not on the curriculum in a place where the education system attracts the brightest kids from Taipei to Tasmania.

Ever since he could say one, two and three, David has had a knack for numbers. On car rides, he demands that we quiz him. He can multiply 45 × 2 and subtract 45 from 102. He also likes to divide up his genetic composition to describe his own self. His most recent equation is 1/4 fruit bat, 1/4 Asian, 1/4 Jewish and 1/4 vegetarian. I don't tell him that it doesn't work that way because maybe, one day, it will.

But suddenly I'm being told that he's performing below the standard on some sort of dot assessment, or whatever it's called. This ability sure will come in handy when the United States is bankrupt from war and China cashes in the treasury bonds we sold them. And David, whose mind might have been on the front lines of problem solving, won't be able to play with numbers in his head anymore because it will be filled with standardized information.

David's teacher, perhaps sensing my discomfort, did point out something special about his thinking skills at the very end of our half-hour discussion. She had given the kids an assignment to separate a handful of shapes into two categories. David put all the shapes that look the same right side up and upside down in one column and the rest in another.

"I've never seen that before," she said, with hardly a trace of enthusiasm.

I sighed, knowing there's no mechanism by which to score this kind of thought. It's not his teacher's fault. She's a perfectly lovely person who works very hard indeed. And my son is certainly far from perfect. David has a tantrum if you try to get him to wear anything but sweatpants, and he has trouble with the concept of cause and effect. Whenever he misbehaves, he insists that it's an accident — even if he's poked another kid in the eye. Yet he'll cry for hours in genuine remorse.

I left his school feeling trapped. Yes, David needs to function in a spotty world, but how can I protect his mind from mediocrity? When we're at home, he invents things all day long. We don't tell him what to play with or when. He builds with Legos a lot — for 12 hours straight on Christmas Day. He also writes books — mingling onions, math and swords — and illustrates them. He never, ever says that he's bored. It's like he's dreaming all the time. Connecting dots that don't exist.

In David's latest book, "Facts About Aliens and Things," he outlines a secret alien code. There's your standard "G.G.S.," which is green goo string. And there's your average "P.T.E.," which stands for p tooo ex, something the aliens say sometimes. The last page of the book reads, "Aliens have connections to earth benders," and the back flap mysteriously credits "Rapid Studios." He does seem to use dots well at the end of each abbreviation and sentence.

But on page 3, you'll find the real treasure, the rare and remarkable "V.I.D.," also known as the valid ideot detector, the description of which uses double-dotted colons. Illuminated as follows:

Length: Small

Texture: Meteil

Like a meteil detector

I asked David, who was busy with another creation, when the aliens might find such a tool useful.

"Mom, you're distracting me."

"A few more questions, David, and then you can go back to work."

"OK."

"Can an alien take a valid ideot detector to school?" I decided not to correct his spelling of the word "idiot."

"No way."

"Why?"

"Because it would shock everyone."

Call me an ideot, but I detect a good idea here. Maybe it's time for a jolt.

—Nancy Stearns Bercaw is a journalist who has written for newspapers from the Korea Herald to the New York Times and is a frequent contributor to Seven Days. She is writing two memoirs: Swimming With the Dead and Brain in a Jar. "Use Your Words" is a monthly essay in which writers reflect on parenting and childhood.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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