Pay (For) Attention

October 17, 2013

Credentials: In Sixth Grade, when I came to Horace Mann and was trying to get adjusted to the rigorous academics, a tutor recommended I get tested for A.D.D before actually beginning to tutor me. Surprise surpprise, at 11 years old, I did have some trouble focusing in mathematics. After testing, I was offered extra-time...and adderal. I rejected the extra-time but took the speed, described to me as the miracle “smart” drug.  I have been offered and have declined extra-time every year since then but have been happily addicted to amphetamines until about a month ago. At that point, with my prescription running dry, I realized I no longer possessed the mental discipline to attend school without it.  I associated going to school with popping a pill, and felt that I could not start the semester without refilling my prescription. However, thanks to health class, I was able to recognize a red flag. I didn’t see my drug dealer, Dr. X. Did my grades plummet? No. Turns out that after six years at Horace Mann, I’ve actually picked up some academic competency.

I have three goals: to hypothesize why so many people are diagnosed with “having trouble paying attention,” to discredit the solution to Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D), and to express a friendly contempt for the students who utilize extra-time for no legitimate reason. 

The Hypothesis: Horace Mann students with A.D.D tend to have been diagnosed as children, in lower or middle school. In fact, A.D.D is the most commonly diagnosed behavioral disorder during childhood. ADD.org defines, “in children, the disorder is characterized by inattentiveness to external direction, impulsive behavior and restlessness.” I have to laugh a little at this scientific observation. You see, I’m pretty sure that’s also what characterizes CHILDREN!  Herein lies one of many major problems with A.D.D testing: it’s not falsifiable. How can anyone disprove that an 11 year old child has trouble reading a history textbook or staring at long lists of numeric symbols? One might assume that the Manhattan learning specialists who test for A.D.D devised a testing method that weeds out the children who occasionally suffer from boredom rather than a psychological disorder. But oops! They didn’t.

Let’s discuss how my learning specialist diagnosed me with A.D.D: at about 7 in the morning, I had to complete endless streams of mindless tasks: tapping X on a keyboard when the letter flashed on the screen, responding to quick-fire mathematic word problems, and tracing an over-complicated picture. I was not asked to complete an academic examination in an allotted period of time. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t take the “testing” too seriously. By the end, I qualified for extra time, and you would have too.  You see, to qualify for extra time you basically have to fail a battery of tests that you have zero incentive to pass.

Apparently, the learning test measured a chemical imbalance of dopamine in my brain. Funny, how you can quantify a chemical imbalance without the use of chemistry -- without taking a blood test or a CAT scan. In other words, the test involved nothing that even resembled medical prognosis, yet it resulted in a prescription for a controlled substance. A.D.D is presumably a psychological problem, since psychological testing – not neurological testing – identifies it. Yet the common solution to this psychological problem is neurological: give the student speed to help him catch up. In fact, the solution for the Horace Mann students that I know does not include any legitimate psychotherapy what-so-ever…

Since many students visit the same psychiatrist I once did, I’ll use Dr. X as an example of the kind of treatment private schools students with “learning disabilities” receive.   Every six months Dr. X asked if I was having trouble paying attention in school, to which I responded (like clockwork), “Yes, but the adderal helps.” Then, I trotted home with a six-month prescription to addictive stimulants. So you might be wondering, what’s the difference between this Manhattan psychiatrist and the guy who offers me pot on the street corner? Well, my psychiatrist went to medical school to deal drugs, and my parents suggested that I “just say yes.”

So A.D.D does not seem to operate under psychology or medical neurology. Well then, what dimension does it exist in? How can psychiatrists treat this totally over-diagnosed and over-prescribed “disorder” with both psychological (extra-time) and neurological (speed) methods? 5% of the American Teenage population has A.D.D, so presumably no more than around 8 students per grade should receive testing accommodations. I have a fairly justified suspicion that more than 8 people in my grade get extra-time for A.D.D or a non-specific academic problem (one that does not fall under any one of the six types of learning disorders). 

At least at Horace Mann, it seems generally accepted that the A.D.D testing mechanism is flawed. So then why the hell is it implemented? If psychiatrists want to propose a solution to a psychological disorder that will radically change academic standards, shouldn’t they at least be able to claim that their testing method is 90% fail-proof –- that people who score low on their tests will actually suffer from a learning disability? How about they fix the system and make the club a little more exclusive before casually dishing out double time and crank.

Let’s discuss people who actually grapple with A.D.D. Originally, this disorder referred to the psychological afflictions of crack babies. These students could not physically sit down in a seat and listen to an adult for more than a few seconds. They’d sprint around class rooms bumping into walls and desks. Presumably, the Horace Mann students suffering from A.D.D should show the same superficial characteristics…Of course, the vast majority do not. Somehow, A.D.D has been extended to students who simply have difficulty paying attention. For these crack babies, paying attention was not psychologically challenging, it was IMPOSSIBLE. So if you claim to have A.D.D, it should actually be IMPOSSIBLE for you to sit down and pay attention for extended periods of time.

Of course, some people diagnosed with A.D.D actually do fit this standard (I know one), but the vast majority do not.  The same Horace Mann students who supposedly suffer from A.D.D. manage to maintain their attention for some endeavors, say, Grand Theft Auto or a two hour special of the O.C. Why?  Because some academic endeavors don’t INTEREST these students, and thus they experience a certain degree of attention deficit.  Instead of psychiatrists, parents, and Horace Mann demanding that these children pay attention and display more academic discipline, they give them extra-time and drugs. Since every single student at Horace Mann occasionally finds it difficult to focus, how about we all get some extra-time?

The Disclaimer: I’d like to firmly state that I in no way wish to denigrate the use of extra-time for students with legitimate learning handicaps, such as, say dyslexia or disgraphia. Students with these existent learning disabilities do not have a disorder that’s easily remediable; they cannot swallow some speed or undergo psychotherapy. They can also immediately identify their psychological affliction, “I can’t READ,” as opposed to muttering, “Well, sometimes I sit down at my desk and find it incredibly difficult to get to work.” (Cry me a RIVER, so does everyone else).

Let’s compare the standard testing environment and the extra-time environment.

Scenario 1: I sit in an ultra-stressful academic environment, furiously composing an essay critiquing the social ramifications of bovine autism in the educational construct of the Eastern United States in response to a question that I’ve never seen or imagined, scribbling like Satan is behind me. My examination is testing my ability to both spit back cold facts and invent intricate analysis in the course of 45 minutes.

Extra-time is not even subject-specific. So even though my learning disability is quantitative reasoning difficulties (psychologist-speak for “bad at math”), I’d clearly take the double-time for history, the subject in which I actually require more time, and a subject which is completely disjointed from mathematics. Now let’s examine the alternative.

Scenario Two: I could be sitting up in the library, eating cookies[1], carefully considering this random essay question and then wrapping together a clean roman numerated outline, then leisurely constructing my essay, adding some similes, and finally proof-reading for syntax, checking for conceptual flawlessness, and reaching rhetorical nirvana.  

Why do I choose the first scenario? Academic integrity. Why don’t I take adderal any longer? Well, for the same reason I don’t tie a rubber band around my arm and inject myself with anabolic steroids before gym class - using performance enhancers to compete on a superior level used to be considered cheating. Later in the month, an extra-timer will probably have the audacity to ask me how I did on the test. Math isn’t my strong suit, but I’m pretty sure that half the pressure (thanks, Extra-Time!) multiplied by half the natural mental discipline (thanks, speed!) = 25% the accomplishment, with 100% of the advantage. So please, explain to me how our grades can POSSIBLY mean the same thing? How can a teacher POSSIBLY grade us by the same standard?

This comparison does not apply to students who actually suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder. Identifying these students seems fairly easy: if a student with extra-time races crazily to finish his/her essay and does not have leisure time, then we did take the same test, the playing field has been leveled, and the system works. Find me more than 5 of this batch, please.

Here’s the most blatantly idiotic aspect about the academic solution to A.D.D: if these students are adequately medicated by psychiatrists with Adderal and/or Ritalin that correct their innate chemical imbalance, then why do they ALSO get twice as much time? Another equation for you:  speed plus double time equals cheating!

The Friendly Contempt:  The following paragraphs address two types of extra-time students: ones who take extra-time while admitting that they suffer from no legitimate learning disability, and one’s who argue that they need extra time not because of A.D.D, but because they process things slower than other Horace Mann students. This second type has always baffled me. What kind of learning disability is “not being able to respond to a question as quickly?”

But let’s introduce the basest of all students:  the ones who take extra-time with full knowledge of its illegitimacy. The few of these that actually enter debate as proponents of extra-time argue that if they’re given an academic advantage, why shouldn’t they use it? Hmm…have any of you read To Kill a Mockingbird? It’s not ETHICAL to take advantage of other people just because you can.

The most offensive act perpetrated by this group is the abuse of extra time for the S.A.T. Here’s a standardized test whose sole purpose was to level the national academic playing field between rich tutored private school students and poor aspiring students. And what do the rich tutored private school students do? They deck academic standards in the face and take the S.A.T over the course of two days. Then, they send their most likely superior scores to a college, knowing that the college will not know which students received extra-time. Because apparently, you can’t discriminate against cheaters. 

So psychiatrists diagnose us with A.D.D or faux learning disability du jour  and then launch us into the world with an expensive drug addiction and absolutely no work ethic. Thanks a lot guys, that’s really doing a benevolent service to the psychologically ill. Psychiatry should help challenged individuals - not zombify youth and figuratively urinate on diligent or at least honest students. Manhattan psychiatrists and the extra time institutions aren’t helping students by making them psychologically dependent on double time and stimulants, they’re actually crippling them. In the real world, people cannot ask their bosses or colleagues to slow down and work at half their normal pace. Extra-time simply does not exist. If you feel you need double time to function, might I suggest that you graduate high school over the course of 8 years.  

Horace Mann is diligent in its method for approving students for extra-time. A team of specialists from different divisions along with Dr. Rothschild examine each academic report for each student and then makes their decision. Horace Mann isn’t sloppy or arbitrary. Unfortunately, the academic reports upon which the Committee on Learning Disabilities bases its decisions are – as far as I’m concerned – unreliable and inaccurate.

My intention with this article is not to be obnoxious or to discriminate against or embarrass students who take extra-time. My intention is first, to urge all students who take extra-time to contemplate the true root of their psychological affliction and try self-improvement or psychotherapy -- before stimulants and extra-time.  Students who decide to simply take extra-time without thinking of its effects on other Horace Mann students should realize the extreme disservice they perpetrate against their peers and the large portion of people in this country who actually suffer from learning disabilities.  My second hope is to end the ridiculous silence on this subject. Somehow, extra-time has become a taboo, a status that prevents students from demanding any credibility from the system. Let’s open this up to some debate.

Please note:  the 2nd half of this article will be available upstairs in the library at the end of the day right after the G period amphetamine party.


[1] In 8th Grade, Extra-Time Students ate cookies in the Extra-Time room during the 1 ½ hour history final. 

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