Monday, July 11, 2005

What Grades Mean

The mid-Nineties saw the rise of the "ritalin kid," a tragic soul who, through no fault of his own, suffered a chemical imbalance that made him hyperactive, inattentive. Or, if you believe the other side of the coin, the mid-Nineties saw the rise of the "ritalin kid," a spoiled brat overstimulated during development and driven to chemical imbalance by over-reliance on a new drug that allowed frazzled parents to spackle over their kids' defects rather than try to correct them.

It's not a trivial issue. Near-literal wars have been fought over whether Attention-Deficit Disorder is a real condition (it is), whether it is over-diagnosed in the U.S. (it is), and whether many children are receiving a higher dose of ritalin than is justified by their condition (they are). ADD and its close cousin ADHD cut deep into long-standing intuitions about the distinction between a "condition" and a "personality." Classically, if a child was unable to attend to complex instructions or to retain a level of self-control, they were labeled "problem kids" and usually also declared stupid. Now, however, because ADD is a "condition" independent of intelligence or intentionality, it is suddenly being treated in a very different way, which initially made many people very uncomfortable.

Then came the parents. Across the country, parents came to bat for their hyperactive or otherwise attention-deficient kids. Like grizzlies defending their children (which, frankly, they were), parents attacked school administrators for being biased against their children for problems beyond the child's ability to control. Ironically, the thrust of these attacks were not that teachers should be more patient, as might be logical. It was that their kids should not be punished because of their condition, and therefore that they should be given special privileges so that their grades no longer reflected their condition. Dyslexic kids got more time with tests, they argued, so their kids, also stricken with a condition, should receive similar treatment. ADD and ADHD became "learning disabilities," qualities wherein a person was suddenly exempt from certain universal standards.

And it's precisely at this point that my line in the sand was crossed. Understand: I have sympathy for people who suffer from serious cases of ADD and ADHD. I've known a fair share, and many are terribly insecure about their propensity for distraction. In my experience, this group often has been forced to work harder than their peers to rise to the occasion, and their pride in their accomplishments is constantly undermined by the ease their peers have doing the same things. But just as often, I've met people for whom the condition is a status symbol, and who demand the pity and consideration of those around them. Instead of buckling down and trying to force their minds to order, this group has instead stopped trying to think, and act with the expectation that the world will grant them favors because of their status.

This latter group is a problem because they make up a part of our society that undermines an overall ability to assess skill. Consider the following just-so story: I am a child with ADHD, and as a consequence, I receive double time to take the SATs. The magnitude of my condition isn't taken into account, as long as it is "bad enough." So I, taking my proper dose of medication, am able to concentrate enough that the doubled time actually gives me an advantage score-wise over the poor suckers who didn't get extra time. I now apply to colleges. Presumably, whether or not I am accepted to college X, Y, or Z will be influenced by my SAT score. The same goes for my grades - throughout high school, my parents consistently won me favors in test-taking circumstances, keeping my grades high. The result is a superior college-bound resume than my peers of equal "intelligence," and I get into a better school.

Would this be fair? A person's grades, arguably, are going to be used as an assessment of their scholastic capability. If given no advantages once in college, I predict that the child embodied by the above paragraph would be thrust into an environment they would be unable to excel (or possibly even succeed) in. If, on the other hand, they do get favors in college, what about when they enter the work force? The intuition I'm getting at is that grades should measure performance, and if a person is unable to perform for some reason, that should be reflected in their grades.

"But wait," says he public conscience, "what about the poor dyslexic kid you mentioned earlier? Should be get shafted as well?" After some thought, I've decided that it's a much tougher call for dyslexia than for ADD or ADHD. Here's why: in the case of a perception problem (e.g. dyslexia), the problem is confounding sensory inputs. A severely dyslexic kid would do as well as other kids if the test was read aloud to everyone. Learning disorders that stem from an inability to think clearly, however, are problems of confounding cognitive processing. It's not a matter of mud on the windshield, it's a matter of a wrench in the engine. And, I assert, that is as worthy an influence on grades as run-of-the-mill stupidity.

I think our society is totally ignorant of what it means to have ADD or ADHD. People take concentration for granted, and you can't just tell someone unable to filter out distractions to "focus harder." And they do deserve special consideration with respect to education: teachers need patience and genuine empathy to get through to them. I'm not opposed to having them take tests in environments that are less distracting. But giving them extra time on tests or grading their papers more leniently makes the problem worse. I've met people who gloat about their "special status," and how it's going to give them the edge they need to get the best grades in the class, and it's he kind of pride I can't stand. The mentality of "being disabled" becomes a crutch (in the ultimate irony) that the person is unable to operate without. It gives them an excuse not to try. Grades should indicate capability, and if a person's problem are bad enough that they cannot be overcome, their grades should reflect that.


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