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I don't review books I don't like!

*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
***    = Above average
**      = Enjoyable
*        = Good, with reservations


**The Report Card

by Andrew Clements

Reviewed June 23, 2004.
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, New York, 2004.  173 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (J MCN F CLE).

Nora is a genius.  She’s so brilliant that when she was a baby she figured out that if anyone, even her parents, found out what she could do, she would stand out like a freak.  So she decides to be normal.  She even studies up on the standardized test all the kids take to find out exactly how many questions to miss to be sure the results show her to be completely average.

But her friend Stephen doesn’t do so well on the standardized test, and he starts feeling like he is stupid.  School becomes a struggle for him.  So Nora decides to make a point about grades, to show everyone that grades in fifth grade are not so important, and don’t define who you are.  She gets straight D’s.

This unleashes a furor in which Nora’s cover gets blown and a whole class decides to get zeroes on a test.  In the end, they all get a reminder that grades should not define who you are or what you can be.

I would have liked this book much better if I hadn’t recently read Millicent Min, Girl Genius.  Nora felt like a bit of a caricature, but Millicent Min was one particular, very human genius whom I could believe in.  I didn’t quite believe that Nora could really have fooled her parents into thinking she was average for so long.

This book felt like it was more about the message that grades should not be so important than it was about the story.  I wasn’t sure I liked the way the message was presented.  Though I know I as a parent can go overboard in emphasizing grades, I didn’t like the way the book seemed to be against programs for the gifted.  When Nora’s told she’s going to be switched to gifted classes, she says, “But if I finish my work or if I already understand what the teacher’s talking about, then I can just think about something else.  I’ve always had plenty to think about.  I’ll run math problems in my head.  I’ll think about the poems I’ve got memorized.  Or I can get out a book and read.  I want to stay in the normal classes because I like normal kids.  I don’t want special treatment, and I don’t want teachers who are always trying to push me ahead.”

On the one hand, there’s something in the message.  When I read Smart Boys, I wondered that the author found gifted men living average, normal lives as something of a failure.  Do smart boys have to end up as brilliant, rich men?  Why do we feel we have to push smart kids to perform dramatically above their age mates?

On the other hand, why should kids have to sit in classes where a teacher is trying to teach them something they already know?  This attitude that smart kids already have enough resources isn’t always fair to them.  I suppose if a child like Nora truly didn’t want to join a gifted class, we shouldn’t make her.  However, I do think it’s better if more challenging classes are available.  In this book, Nora’s doing all her learning outside of class, using her own resources and the internet.  Wouldn’t it be nice if she could find a teacher who would actually teach her something?

I’ve thought a lot about programs for the gifted, so forgive me if I use this as an excuse to go on a bit.  Is it really fair to make a kid sit through someone trying to teach them skills they’ve already mastered?  Early elementary school is devoted to teaching kids to read.  So what do you do with a kid who’s already reading novels at a sixth grade level?  I know that it’s thought of as terrible to separate kids by ability, but putting such a child into the same group as slow readers will only embarrass everyone.  The fast reader will end up trying to read slowly in order to fit in.

Math is another area where the learning at most levels is about skills.  Once a child completely understands fractions, they don’t need to go over and over it.  This is why I had my son advanced three years ahead of his grade in Math.  He had the skills to do Algebra, so why hold him back?  On the other hand, in areas like English, once they get past learning the skill of reading, literature is about ideas, and I thought he’d still have plenty to learn with his age-mates.

Another reason to have programs for the gifted is to keep them from getting used to not learning anything in school.  My same son had a rude awakening in fourth grade when they wanted him to do projects, requiring time.  When schoolwork was only studying, he didn’t need to spend any time outside of class because he either already knew the material or could learn it quickly.  If you can keep such kids from forgetting how much fun it is to actually learn something, you’ve done everyone a favor.

Bottom line, I truly don’t believe that a genius like Nora could ever hide her intelligence from everyone so effectively.  People say that having programs for the gifted makes those who are “not gifted” feel dumb.  (And this book was really about good-hearted Stephen, who didn’t perform well on his achievement test because of test anxiety.)  However, even if adults don’t do the labeling, the kids always know who the “brain” is.  Yes, extremely bright kids do want to fit in (and you would rarely find them flaunting it, like the obnoxious kid in Nora’s class), but through so many little things like vocabulary, speed at doing work, and the books they choose to read, they always give themselves away.  How much better it would be to give them a place where it’s okay to be who they are.

So I had two complaints about the book.  The focus was more on the message than the story, and I had some qualms about the message.  Also, Nora was a bit of a cardboard character.  I wasn’t quite sure I believed in her.

Still, the book did have an interesting message, and could spark some interesting discussion with kids.  Do they think grades are emphasized too much?  How do they feel about standardized test scores?  What about publicizing an Honor Roll?  For that matter, you can ask them what they do when the teacher’s talking about something they already know.  This book brings up some interesting things to think about.

Reviews of other books by Andrew Clements:
A Week in the Woods
Jake Drake: Teacher's Pet
The School Story

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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