Children’s minds, hearts matter more than test scores

In teaching writing to college students, I learned this: Academically weak young students might take longer to achieve their goals, but they’ll find their way, with good character, humor and a sense of purpose.

SHARE Children’s minds, hearts matter more than test scores
A crossing guard helps students and parents cross the street safely as they arrive at Willa Cather Elementary School, 2908 W. Washington Blvd. in East Garfield Park

A crossing guard helps students and parents cross the street outside a Chicago elementary school.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

For most of my adult life, I taught writing and literature courses at various Chicago colleges and universities. Depending on where, when, and what subject, I encountered students with widely varying backgrounds.

As a result, I learned quite a lot about students and their capabilities. Although a student’s socio-economic, ethnic, or racial background sometimes affected their performance in the classroom, I discovered — thankfully — that more often than not, it didn’t.

What did matter? What was in their heads and hearts.

I have to admit that at times I had qualms about my students who came from the suburbs or from out of state. They were mostly upper-middle class, and though I was impressed with their academic performance, I was often dismayed at their sense of privilege. Most had gone to private schools, had personal tutors, and benefitted from having Advanced Placement courses in many subjects. And from grammar school through high school, they had excellent test scores.

Opinion bug


The students I respected most were of an older set, ones who had been freshmen years before but who had either dropped out, or even flunked out, of college. They had returned, wanting more for themselves: a degree, a career, and the sense of accomplishment that comes with both. They came back with a sense of purpose.

As for socio-economic class, they were from the working or lower-middle classes. And they were locals. As for race, they were white, Hispanic and Black — a demographic snapshot of America and of Chicago (while the students in the first group were white).

And even though they often struggled, they knew they were behind, or that their skill sets were lacking. But they had something to say, and they did their best. They kept a positive attitude, and they passed their classes and moved on.

Recently, nationwide test scores for elementary students were released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and for Illinois students by the Illinois Report Card. The scores for third, fourth, and eighth graders were shockingly low, especially in math and English. In Chicago, the results were quite dismal.

The causes of the poor test scores? Primarily, the closing of schools due to COVID-19 and the resulting reliance upon on-line instruction. Race and income inequality also seem to have played a role, as well as chronic absenteeism, especially among minority students.

What is to be done about this seeming catastrophe in the lower grades? Based on my experiences with my former college-age students, I recommend this: Ignore the test scores, or at least, try to.

Test scores, regardless of educational level, are merely snapshots, frozen moments in academic time and in the lives of the students. Although those elementary school students might be behind now, it is not a given that they will be behind a year from now, or four years from now or even later as adults.

And if they were to have less than robust ACT or SAT scores in high school, that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to get into a good four-year college or a community college, or perhaps a trade school or the military.

Those academically weak young students might take longer to achieve their goals in life, but they will — they’ll find their way — and ideally they’ll do it with good character, humor and a sense of purpose — which are more important than test scores.

If they can’t ignore them, what should worried parents make of their children’s low test scores? Simple but proven things. Use them to identify problem areas and for points of discussion with their teachers. If you have time from your busy day to help your children with their homework, do so, as your involvement will make a difference. (Oh, and impound their phones.)

If your child’s school offers tutoring services, or you can afford one, explore that option. Finally, let your children know that you have faith that they will succeed.

For who can tell what each of us will become during the progress of our lives? Who will build? Who will teach? Who will heal? The answers lie in the hearts and minds of those children and not in their test scores.

John Vukmirovich is a Chicago-area writer and book reviewer.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

The Latest
Upbeat documentary draws from archives and interviews to profile ambitious artist determined to show how funky and strong was his skill.
Daryl Hall, in a court filing, accuses musical partner John Oates of moving to sell his share of the team’s joint venture. A court hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
Authorities suspect the woman was the victim of a homicide. Her body was found early Wednesday by the side of a road in Old Mill Creek.
A 22-year-old man was in a parking lot in the 8700 block of South Lafayette Avenue when he was struck by gunfire about 5:10 p.m. Wednesday police said.