This past week a Jewish school administrator posed a question about managing the vast number of high school students who now require extra time on exams for diagnosed learning challenges. It has apparently caused great tension in that school, and has raised ethical issues as well.
This matter is not limited to Jewish schools. The debate over testing accommodations for those who are not severely disabled has been going on for some time now, has received ample attention in the media, and serves as an example of how some parents are allegedly willing to game the system by making sure their child is diagnosed with a learning challenge, usually ADHD, that allows for extra time on tests.
This raises many issues, including putting those children with an actual disability at a further disadvantage, increasing the disparity between affluent parents who can pay for the $4,000 neurological workup vs. the economically disadvantaged families who cannot, and giving children without ADHD access to medication.
Furthermore, it raises a serious question about the achievement-based educational environment that bred these issues in the first place.
Our current educational system has taught our children how to navigate and survive schooling, not how to embrace and love learning. “Schooling” instructs a student to follow rules and directions, be compliant, memorize information, and do well on tests, all in order to succeed at school. This system has been rigged since its inception to benefit a minority of the student population to rise through the ranks, and become the elite. The wealthier segments of our society have always disproportionately gained from this type of system. The goal was to separate the factory workers from the managers and leaders. In an industrial society, it was an efficient way to segregate people into different groups to help the economy to function.
We do not live in the 20th century anymore. We do not need as many factory workers, and we need fewer traditional white collar workers. What students need today has changed; but many adults making decisions for our children have not fully grasped this new reality. Uncertainty about our rapidly changing world has created increased anxiety in parents, and instead of embracing change, many are doubling down, and micro-managing their children more than ever to set them up for what they perceive as future success.
It’s not working. We have ample evidence that today’s schooling, and the pressure parents place on their children, have increased anxiety, tension, and depression, and for many families, has also increased their tolerance for cheating and unfairly gaming the system. In addition, our current system is preventing many of our students from mastering the skills they actually need for the global world they will inherit. This has been reported in many studies, surveys and journals, as I’ve written about in previous blogs.
Tests and grades are at the center of this oppressive environment. When schooling becomes about grades, real learning is diminished. Students learn to ask questions, but they become the wrong questions – Do we need to know this? Should we write this down? Is this going to be on the test? How do you want me to do it? What do you (teacher) want? Tests and grades kill creativity, curiosity and risk taking. Parents often ask the wrong questions as well. How did you do on the test? What grade did you get? This sends the message that grades matter, not learning. And when a child doesn’t perform well on a test, or doesn’t receive a good grade, they become demoralized, convinced they are stupid or incapable. In many cases, they simply give up, as Jessica Lahey poignantly describes in her book, The Gift of Failure.
In this environment, it is no surprise to me that more and more students are being diagnosed with learning challenges in order to get extended time on tests. It is no surprise to me that it raises ethical issues as well, because we all know not every child who has been diagnosed truly needs extra time on tests. It is the same system that has created a culture of student cheating in our schools, a culture that Jewish day schools are not immune from.
Until we address the dysfunction that is causing emotional distress, and creating environments that tolerate cheating and unethical behaviors to prepare for a future that doesn’t even exist anymore, then schools will continue to be challenged with these ethical dilemmas.
At Hillel, we are looking carefully at how we assess student growth and progress. We want assessments to be authentic, and focused on learning, and growth. We are on a journey moving away from grades to providing students and parents with more valuable feedback that encourages learning, perseverance and growth.
At home, I would encourage parents to ask your children the following kinds of questions: What questions did you ask today in class? What did you learn from your mistakes? How could you do it differently the next time? What interested you about…? Share with me something new that you learned today. Demonstrate to your children, by the way you frame the conversation, that you are interested and support their learning — not the grade.