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The Fallout of High-Stakes Testing and Grades

Tests and grades are at the center of increased anxiety and tension in schools. They kill creativity, curiosity, and risk-taking.

A school administrator grappled with managing the mushrooming number of high school students diagnosed with learning challenges and then given extra time on exams. It apparently caused great tension in that school, and raised ethical issues as well.

The debate over testing accommodations has been going on for some time now, and has received ample attention in the media. There has been a great deal of media coverage concerning some parents allegedly “gaming the system” – securing a testing advantage –  by making sure their child is diagnosed with a disability, usually Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and allowing for extra time on tests. Recently, there have been widely reported scandals involving “celebrity” parents attempting to manipulate testing and application “resumes” in order to secure admission into select colleges for their children.

This raises serious issues, among them, putting children with legitimately documented learning challenges at a further disadvantage; increasing the disparity between affluent parents who can pay for expensive neurological workups and those economically disadvantaged families who cannot, and giving children without ADHD access to medication and extended time on tests.  

Furthermore, it raises a troubling question about our achievement-based educational environment that bred these issues in the first place. Our current educational system has taught our children to navigate and survive schooling, not to embrace and love learning.  Students are instructed that in order to succeed in school, they must follow rules and directions; be compliant, memorize information, and perform well on tests. 

I believe this system has been rigged since its inception to help ensure that an elite segment of the student population disproportionately rises through the ranks. In the early stages of  industrial society, the goal was to separate factory workers from managers and leaders; it was an efficient way to help the economy to function by segregating people into different groups. 

In our post-industrial society, we clearly no longer need as many factory workers or even traditional white-collar workers. Students’ needs have changed; however, 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 some parents, and instead of embracing change, many are doubling down to set children up for what they perceive as future success, and more than ever, are micro-managing their children.

It’s not working. We have ample evidence that today’s schooling, and the pressures placed on children, have increased anxiety, tension, and depression. For some families, it has also raised their tolerance for cheating the system. In addition, our current system prevents many of our students from mastering skills they actually need for the global world they will inherit. This has been reported in many studies, surveys, and journals and we see it playing out in the workforce in which so many young people are simply not prepared.

Tests and grades, I believe, are at the center of this issue. They kill creativity, curiosity, and risk-taking. When schooling becomes about grades, real learning is diminished.  Students learn to ask questions, but they often are 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 (the teacher) want? 

Parents unwittingly 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 more than actual learning.  And when a child doesn’t perform well on a test, or doesn’t receive a good grade, they can become demoralized, convinced they are stupid or incapable. In many cases, they simply give up, as author 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 secure extended time on tests. It is no surprise to me that it raises ethical issues as well, because we all know not every child diagnosed with a learning challenge truly needs extra time on tests.  It is the same system that has created a culture of student cheating in our schools, a culture from which Jewish day schools are not immune.

To fully prepare our children for a future that has yet to be imagined, we must address the dysfunction that is causing emotional distress, killing deep learning, and creating environments that tolerate cheating and unethical behavior. Until we do this, our schools will continue to be challenged by these dilemmas.

We need to put learning at the center of what our children do in schools. We need to look carefully and critically at how we assess student growth and progress. We need to focus on learning and not the grade or score – those are simply by-products. We want assessments to be authentic and designed to provide feedback that encourages reflection, learning, perseverance and growth. 

At home, I would encourage you 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 – and not just the grade.

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