The Math Test That Changed My Life

When I was 7 years old, I started attending The Mirman School for Gifted Children.  It was pretty intimidating.  I had to take an IQ test just to get in, and when I arrived at Ms. Rubin’s 3rd grade class, most of my classmates had already spent a couple of years together, rather than sitting around in public school feeling bored (as I had).

Early in the year, we took a math assessment test.  It was a timed test of basic math; I think we had 15 minutes to answer 100 questions.  It was quite a bit more strenuous than anything I had experienced at Franklin Elementary, and I ended up getting an 85 or so.

This was critical because because this particular test was being used to divide the class (of gifted children) into regular and advanced math.

When I showed my parents my test, I felt pretty down.  I had always thought of myself as smart, but I worried that I couldn’t hack it at this higher level.  Maybe I was just a big fish in a small pond before.

My dad (who has a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering) listened wisely, and then asked, “Do you get another chance to take the test?”

As it turns out, I did.  Mirman let students take the test twice, in case a student just happened to have a bad day.

My dad explained that math was simply a matter of practice.  I had done poorly because I wasn’t used to answering so many questions in such a compressed period of time.  Since this was the early 1980s, he hand wrote some practice tests for me (no way to search the Internet for samples!), and used his watch to time me as I practiced.

Each time I practiced, my score improved.  When I took the assessment test at school for the second time, I got a 97 and my career as a “math star” was launched.  I stayed at the top of the advanced math class for the rest of my time at Mirman (though I wasn’t a superstar like my classmate Masi Oka, who was doing calculus when we were still in the 6th grade), and competed in math contests throughout my high school career (I’m still bitter that a fever forced me out of the Mathcounts competition my sophomore year; it cost me a first-place trophy).

Even today, I still enjoy doing math in my head, and regularly race and beat folks who have to rely on their smartphone calculators.

This experience came to mind when I read this recent piece in the Atlantic:

“Again and again, we have seen the following pattern repeat itself:
  1. Different kids with different levels of preparation come into a math class. Some of these kids have parents who have drilled them on math from a young age, while others never had that kind of parental input.
  2. On the first few tests, the well-prepared kids get perfect scores, while the unprepared kids get only what they could figure out by winging it—maybe 80 or 85%, a solid B.
  3. The unprepared kids, not realizing that the top scorers were well-prepared, assume that genetic ability was what determined the performance differences. Deciding that they “just aren’t math people,” they don’t try hard in future classes, and fall further behind.
  4. The well-prepared kids, not realizing that the B students were simply unprepared, assume that they are “math people,” and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage.”

I could easily have ended up deciding I wasn’t a “math person” if not for the wisdom and support of my parents.  If you’re a parent, make sure you understand this phenomenon, and give your child the boost he or she needs.  You never know when one math test might change the course of an entire life.

2 thoughts on “The Math Test That Changed My Life

  1. I love the idea of a second shot at a test.

    I lobbied at university to give undergrads multiple shots at foundation-of-* classes, but was always shut down by arguments that boiled down to "…our test is too stupid and simple to distinguish between someone who grasps and understands the subject matter and someone who, in just a second attempt, adopted to our test and just because of that performs well…".

    Certainly, in real life, one doesn't have a whole lot of attempts for any particular chance/test. But life usually presents a number of opportunities as long as you try to grasp them.

  2. Life is a long-term game; it's crazy that school makes it seem like a single-elimination tournament.

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