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High School and ADHD: A Toxic Relationship

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology found that, compared to their non-ADHD peers, high school students diagnosed with ADHD

  1. received lower grades;

  2. took far fewer advanced level courses;

  3. failed significantly more classes;

  4. were rated as performing more poorly by teachers;

  5. had lower attendance rates; and

  6. were eight times more likely to drop out.

(Kent, Kristine M. et al. "The Academic Experience of Male High School Students with ADHD." Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology J Abnorm Child Psychol 39.3 (2010): 451-62. PMC, Apr. 2011. Web. 29 Aug. 2015)

Despite controlling for differences in IQ, the overall GPA of students with ADHD averaged over half a point lower than non-ADHD students (2.06 compared to 2.64/4.0). The gap was significantly greater among 9th grade students. In fact, kids with ADHD are five times more likely to be retained in 9th grade. It's not surprising since most high schools now use block scheduling and provide little, if any, transition services upon leaving middle school. Going from eight 50 minute classes every day to four 90 minute classes every other day is a big adjustment for any child let alone one with attention and focus issues!

The authors of the study concluded, "Academic failure in ADHD adolescents may therefore stem from deficits that transcend class difficulty. For example, disorganization (e. g. missing assignments, forgetting tests) may lead to low grades even in cases where the material is easily understood" (Ibid).

As a parent of two children with ADHD currently entering their junior year, may I just say,

"Gee...ya think??"

The simple fact is the current public high school environment is extremely unforgiving or downright intolerant of the executive functioning deficits which are symptomatic of ADHD. Many administrators and general education teachers, as well as a large percentage of the general public, refuse to acknowledge such deficits constitute a real disability. Skills such as organization, planning and prioritizing, and self monitoring are expected to be mastered on your own and long before you enter high school. If not, it is presumed to be laziness or choice on the student's part and his/her grades will suffer the consequences...severely. Even if they accept the existence of these skill deficiencies, they are typically unwilling to accommodate them stating that to do so would somehow diminish the "rigor" or disrupt the pacing of the course or, my personal favorite, provide the ADHD student an "unfair advantage"

In Texas, TEC §28.0216 requires that school districts establish grading policies that reflect a student’s mastery of an assignment. Unfortunately, they don't.

The latest government mandates regarding implementation of a "more rigorous" curriculum that ensures all students graduate high school "College and Career Ready" have resulted in many high schools adopting excessively punitive grading policies. In our district (and pretty much every district I have dealt with in Texas), grading policies are set at the school or academic department level with the District only addressing minor bookkeeping issues such as number and frequency in reporting of grades. In high school, if a student is disorganized or unable to manage their time, they're lucky to earn a "C" regardless of whether they master the course content. If homework is forgotten and turned in the next day, or even misplaced in a backpack and turned in at the end of class, the highest grade they can earn is a 70. In many advanced classes it's a "0." Incomplete class assignments due to poor time management skills are similarly graded.

Not arbitrary enough for you? Consider this:

In my children's school, students taking Spanish are required to maintain one stamp sheet for homework and one for participation for each six week marking period. The teachers will stamp the sheet only if the work has been completed and the student has placed the date and assignment in the appropriate square! If either sheet is ever misplaced and/or you are missing a stamp, you receive a "0" regardless of whether you had the homework completed or the teacher has a record of your participation that day! Imagine what that can do to a student with ADHD's overall grade and it has nothing to do with whether or not s/he has actually learned Spanish!

(It is interesting to note that this is exclusive to Spanish and not the policy when taking French, Latin, German or Chinese).

Instead of increasing college and career readiness, such practices result in low GPAs, and in many cases, failed classes and/or grade retention; effectively eliminating college and career opportunities for students with ADHD!

Earlier this year, the Texas Education Agency through the Statewide Access the General Curriculum Network published a guidance document entitled "Grading and Progress Monitoring for Students with Disabilities." A resource for teachers, it includes best practices for grading all students to avoid discriminating against those with disabilities stating:

Teachers should refrain from including other factors not directly related to the demonstration of academic learning, such as:

  • Homework completion and practice – does simply completing the homework assignment reflect mastery of the learning objective?

  • Attendance/tardiness – is being physically present in class impacting a student’s acquisition of knowledge and skills.

  • Behavior –a student’s behavior, positive or negative, should not have an impact on academic performance.

  • Effort – effort is difficult to gauge and/or grade in an objective way.

  • Timeliness of work completion – student may require varied amounts of time to complete classwork. Teachers should work with students who struggle with timeliness in order to identify the root cause of their late work (i.e. external factors, lack of understanding of the content) and then work with the student and/or remediate their areas of academic need.

  • Following class rules – (see behavior above)

  • Extra credit

  • Organization

Of course, the document merely serves as "guidance" and is not legally binding or enforceable. Despite my forwarding a copy to our local school and district personnel, no attempt has been made to incorporate any of these "best practices."

Equally important to whether the needs of high school students with ADHD are addressed is how those needs are addressed.

A more recent study in 2014 conducted by scientists from UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) and several other universities found that high school students with ADHD receive a "surprising number" of services and supports compared to their non-ADHD peers. Unfortunately for them, the majority of those supports are ineffective and not evidence-based. For example, it would be difficult to find an IEP or 504 Plan for a student that doesn't include additional time for tests as an accommodation. Yet, there is no evidence that such an accommodation helps improve test performance among students with ADHD. (Murray, D. W., et al. "Prevalence and Characteristics of School Services for High School Students with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder," School Mental Health 6, (2014) 264-27).

Lead author Desiree W. Murray suggested, “Using more evidence-based strategies could help reduce the performance gap between students with and without ADHD. These include teaching self-advocacy, self-management strategies, and specific study and organizational skills.”

Now, many high schools do offer special study skills and/or "life skills" classes. However, these classes include students with a variety of disabilities across an even wider variety of skill levels in one classroom with one teacher. Not only do such classes run contradictory to the least restrictive environment requirements of the IDEA, they are unlikely to result in any sustained measurable skill improvement. Plus, placement in such a course unfairly limits opportunities for students with disabilities to take elective courses available to non-disabled students. That is a form of discrimination and a violation of their civil rights under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

So, how do we "detoxify" the relationship and improve the high school experience for our children with ADHD?

  • Pre-high school transition planning-A smooth transition from middle to high school is essential to student success. They must be prepared for the structural, academic and social changes they will face as freshmen;

  • Implementing appropriate research-based strategies and supports-organization, planning and study skills must be taught on a one-to-one basis within the context of the student's current course load to ensure internalization of the skills.

  • Eliminating punitive and discriminatory grading practices-We must insist that every student's grades be reflective of their learning and not their disability.

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