Dissecting the Harmful Culture Surrounding Math at Heschel

By Emma Jonas ‘23, Opinion Editor 

The other day, I found myself conversing with some of my peers about Heschel students’ high stress levels. We wanted to find the core reason behind why students are so stressed so often. We ultimately agreed on an answer: the immense pressure surrounding math at Heschel. 

The anxiety that fills the air on “math test days” is often due to students provoking each other about the material on the exam and the high stakes of the tests. Students feel that there is no way to be fully prepared for a math test because teachers sometimes test students on the application of a topic using different types of questions than they are used to; it is not like a vocabulary quiz or history test where a student knows that they will be tested on exactly what they study. In the hours leading up to the test period, students conjure up the many possible ways a teacher could make the test most difficult. After the test, they erupt in conversation and compare answers.

Students fear failing math to the point where they feel guilty for not understanding a concept, especially if they are not in honors math. A de facto hierarchy has developed in which students in honors math classes are automatically considered the smartest kids in the grade. Vulnerability is essential to learning, but students who are not in the honors math track often feel the need to conceal their troubles and refrain from asking questions. On the other hand, students in the honors math track fear asking questions in class as they do not want to be thought of as unworthy to be in the highest group. If students constantly feel the need to conceal their troubles, it creates stress that builds and builds until all of it is released on “math test day,” adding to the stressful environment. I am obviously not advocating for doing  away with   tracked math classes, which are essential to ensure that each student learns in a setting that appropriately challenges them. But the excessive stress related to math at our school needs to be addressed. 

The Math Department bears some responsibility here too. Math is the only department that amends the daily schedule to fit their test schedule, which conveys the impression that Math tests take priority over all other learning.. Math teachers also elevate the consequences of tests, as scores count for 70% of a student’s grade. Testing students to ensure that they understand and can apply the material is essential to their learning, testing students to ensure that they understand and can apply the material is essential to their learning, but when tests count for so much of a student’s grade, the stress that results can actually hinder student learning.

There is no easy fix to this problem, but there are some possible solutions. The most crucial would be for tests to count for less of a student’s overall grade, which would increase the weight of spot checks and class engagement. Also, if tests were administered more often there would be less stress building up to testing day. And teachers should be more welcoming to questions in class to make it clear that questioning is a vital part of the learning process for all students.

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