215. Cumulative Files

When children take standardized tests, or other pieces of paper deemed significant are produced, those papers are sometimes put into file folders, which are subsequently put into file cabinets. Most of the time, those papers stay there, minding their own business. Most teachers don’t keep checking to review children’s stanine ratings or percentile ranks; most know that those numbers often don’t amount to a hill of beans. Children learn what they learn, and there’s seldom much reason, before teaching, to see what tests predict, or after the fact, to see whether tests have predicted correctly.
There have been laws passed to allow parents to see what those file folders contain, and to allow children above a certain age to see, too. I think they’re good laws. A teacher usually only spends a school year with a child. A parent is there much longer. And the child is there all her/his life. Whatever the teacher has said about the child – whatever any school personnel, testing services, or outside consultants have said – ought to be for the benefit of the child and the parents. And no matter how skilled and insightful those other people may be, there ought to be respect given to the people most affected by the information in the files.
Sometimes the information on the papers is useful. Some of it tells what techniques and materials have been effective for the child in the past. Some narratives help put the child’s behavior in perspective. If a child moves to a new school, the cumulative folder may contain information that will ease the adjustment. And children with various special needs, though often given the support of specialists, can be overlooked in ways that make school more difficult for them if their progress or lack thereof isn’t closely monitored. So the contents of the files can be useful.
But the reports about a child’s previous problems can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Early in my teaching career, I learned about a study in which teachers were purposely given incorrect results of IQ scores, and children’s subsequent success or failure in school was dramatically affected by the misinformation. I’m quite skeptical about that study; I can believe that some teachers’ attitudes and approaches are profoundly affected by IQ scores, but to me, that is an indication of the need for more teacher training. The IQ scores can be useful in some situations.
We sometimes get into trouble when we polarize issues. Refusing to look at a child’s history can cause some kinds of problems, and treating that history as destiny can cause others. So I think cumulative files should remain in folders and cabinets, not be shredded and thrown into dumpsters. But school personnel should maintain perspective.

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