For gifted children with learning disabilities, homework can be torture

Jay Mathews
Columnist November 25, 2012

The first clue Bonnie Beavers had of her daughter’s learning disability came in the second grade. The girl scored at the 99th percentile in math on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, but when her teacher divided the class into groups for math, she was not in the highest one.

Beavers showed the child’s test results to the teacher, who was unmoved. “I caught her counting on her fingers,” she said. Then she went over the top by insisting that none of her students knew that the groups were ranked by perceived ability.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

“My daughter never again liked math or thought she was a good math student,” she said.

The girl later received a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and executive function disorder (an inability to self-organize), as did her older brother. Like many bright children with such disabilities, they had to endure teachers suggesting that they were lazy because they could not complete repetitive assignments in reasonable time.

Such children experience great frustration. Too many educators here, according to numerous parent witnesses, share a stubborn blind spot about disabilities that can be mistaken for sloth or carelessness.

Beavers’s children attended the Montgomery County schools, which appear no worse by this measure than other local districts. Dana Tofig, a Montgomery schools spokesman, said specialists are training teachers on this issue. Beavers briefly enrolled her daughter in a well-regarded private school to see whether that would make a difference. It didn’t.

A startling part of Beavers’s story is that despite her children’s inability to memorize multiplication tables in the third grade, both were admitted to the Center Program for the Highly Gifted at Lucy V. Barnsley Elementary School in the fourth grade. “The screening is mostly concept-based,” Beavers said. “They loved being challenged, and it was the only time they felt socially comfortable at school.”

Still, some of the teachers didn’t understand that intelligence is not measured by how much homework you can do. “One night’s assignment for just one subject was to create dialogue for a Shakespeare character, soak stationery in tea and crumple it to look like parchment, and write the dialogue in ink — in calligraphy,” Beavers said. “Sheer torture for a learning-disabled student.”

After two years at Barnsley, her son wanted to go to a math-science magnet school but failed to qualify. He finished only half the math questions in the allotted time; all were correct.

He enrolled at Westland Middle School, where Beavers asked for a 504 Plan, part of a federal law that requires schools to give children with disabilities a boost. She presented his high test scores and the B’s and C’s he was getting because of late or missing work. She asked for extra time on tests and other accommodations. The head of the school’s education management team said, “I feel sorry for your son. You are clearly pressuring him to make A’s,” then walked out. A spokesman for the county schools declined to comment, citing privacy issues.

Beavers thought her daughter would do better at Holton-Arms, a private school for girls in Bethesda. Based on her test scores she was placed in the highest math group and given extra time on tests. But when Beavers asked the school to cut back on repetitive homework as long as each concept was covered, the response was: “We don’t offer that accommodation.”

If you wish to think Beavers was gaming the system, that’s your right. I have studied too many of these cases to accept that explanation. Why not make more of an effort to persuade teachers with personal views on this to try accommodation and see what happens?

To read previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to washingtonpost.com/jaymathews.

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