A Fourth Grade Spelling Test

handwrittten spelling test of elementary school student

One baby boomer afternoon when my best friend and I were in fourth grade—she in the local public school and I in the parish Catholic school—she showed me her weekly spelling test. It had a shiny metallic-looking star and a great big 92% A written across the top. I too had scored a 92% on my spelling test that week, but I didn’t get a star because 92% was considered a B+ at my school. Only a 93% or higher received an A. 

There were differences in our study lists as well. We both had fourth grade sight words like factory, crop, and engine. And we both had academic words like hemisphere, division, and American. But she never had to spell indulgences, blasphemy, or transubstantiation.

Oh, the disparity a fourth grader can feel! She can do less. I have to do more. Equal performances didn’t receive equal rewards. But did it matter? We both continued to do well at our respective schools. We both graduated from public universities—she as a nurse; I as a speech-language pathologist. We both can still recite the mnemonic: i before e except after c, or in neighbor and weigh (and weird).

Some people are good spellers because they have strong visual memories. Others because they understand phonics. Still others because they pick up clues from the meaning of the word, for example, that fourth is spelled like four not forth because it refers to a number.  And many once-excellent spellers are apt to lose their skills today because their computer spellcheckers not only correct their errors, but catch them in the first place.  Successful learning–in any subject–depends upon hundreds of factors. Methods of grading change with the times. One size will never fit all.

But for me, the arbitrary cutoff of 93% to receive an A  did matter. It mattered because it taught me about school and life: that what I consider enough may actually be too little in a different circumstance or to a different boss. That a  little more effort (or a little less) can make a big difference in the outcome. That exceeding the minimum or average standard made me feel good about myself.  It taught me that learning wasn’t something that could be handed to me like a list of words,  but something that required my active participation.  93% kept the focus of learning high, and helped me see education as a thing of value.

School wasn’t always fun for me and plenty of times I complained about demanding teachers and difficult tests, and voiced the perennial lament I’m never going to need to know this stuff. But when I hear of girls in foreign countries being killed for wanting an education, or of kids truly walking miles to school without shoes, or of students right here in America who would give anything to have a parent praise them for learning to read a new word, recite a multiplication table, or locate a line of latitude on a map, I think of 93% and that fourth grade spelling test. And I know that the only two ways to spell education are p-r-i-v-i-l-e-g-e and g-r-a-t-i-t-u-d-e.

2 thoughts on “A Fourth Grade Spelling Test”

  1. Wonderful! What memories this brings back of school days and the satisfaction of a job well done.

  2. Dear Victoria,

    I enjoyed your blog. I was impressed with your early realization of inequality of spelling tests yet you turned out just as accomplished and with a degree in the end.

    Sometime I feel like there’s too much emphasis on grades. Yet, we need something to make us study and have a way to measure or evaluate what we know and don’t know. Like you said some people have a better visual memory of words and content and don’t have to re-read a lesson or study; they get it the first time. These people get the higher grades without putting forth as much effort as ones who have to re-read and study.

    In my 6 yrs.of elementary school my older teachers didn’t emphasis grades as much as they did trying, participating, reading for enjoyment, and getting papers in on time. When my family moved to a higher classed neighborhood. I soon realized I was far behind in most my subjects. It took a lot of effort for me to catch up so I could graduate and go to college.

    When I look back guess which school I have the best memories? It’s the first school where I was less stressed and happier learning the same words, the same stories and same stuff but at a slower pace.

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