(Un)Fighting Standardized Tests

I teach sixth grade and I find the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) standardized test frustrating. Schools use it in ways I wish we didn’t and we can’t use it in ways we wish we could.  I didn’t realize how conflicted I really felt until my students bombed the test when I had them take it ‘just for practice.’ 

Learning Testing

I had asked that my students be excused from the second of three yearly rounds of testing. When I made my pitch to my principal, I explained that I can’t really use the MAP to inform my teaching because the information I receive from it is so generalized:  it doesn’t help me pinpoint what students know and don’t know.  Also, many of the sixth graders in my class read too much into their score and lose confidence in themselves as mathematicians if it doesn’t rise dramatically.

We decided on a compromise:  Take the test, but tell them it was just for practice.  Students wouldn’t freak out. And they wouldn’t lose out on a opportunity — and this is the part of how we use the test that I don’t like —  to experience how the school would determine their math placement for the coming grade.  They’d just calmly give it their best. Was I in for a surprise.

When I saw their scores, my heart sank.  They relaxed, too much. Much of the class didn’t do as well as they did when they took the test in fifth grade, in spite of six intervening months of learning. These results were completely out of line with every formal and informal observation I’ve made of their learning so far this year.  They also don’t match students’ performance in prior years and I have some of the most powerful student growth I’ve ever had this year.  Also the experience was still toxic, at least for some of them. One student came into class the next day begging to be taught algebra so he could do better next time.  Another was frustrated that she couldn’t explain her answers.  She loves that part of how we do math.   A third said it was a waste of time because he didn’t care about the MAP because tests like that aren’t going to determine who he is.

To learn more about what happened, I gave my students an anonymous survey.  Their responses to my questions and our discussion shed light on the results.  Here is what l learned:   When they know that a test is tied to an opportunity, like getting into a class, they do their very best. In fact that is what 80 % of them had done in fifth grade when they knew the test would determine their middle school placement. This time, for the practice test, about seventy percent of them reported not working very hard, because, they reasoned, “Why bother?  It was just for practice.” This was about the same percentage as those whose scores dropped.  They also said they wouldn’t ever work that hard if it was just practice. The test taking experience is unpleasant, it takes too long, and no one reads their work anyway.

My sixth graders taught me that what students understand about how test results are used matters to them.  They knew that in the 5th grade, their placement in math class would be determined by their score on the MAP and they responded accordingly.  I, along with many educators, have mixed feelings about this, and wish that students’ opportunities weren’t determined by test scores alone. In fact, as professionals with the best interest of children in mind, we can and do work with families to find the best fit for students. Sometimes, we can advocate successfully for a child who hasn’t scored well.   In the past I have shared this with students, emphasizing caring adults’ role in advocating for them.  But in reality those conversations are the exception, not the rule.  Usually it’s a score that determines a child’s math placement. In their world, the numbers do count. Test results matter to students’ future selves. Many of my students will find that doors open for them when they perform well on standardized tests.  Others will lose opportunities when they don’t do well.

I have gone into test days too wishful for years, and my wishes have skewed the way I present the experience to my students.  I look at the scores and wish I could learn more about my students from them, and I wish the scores didn’t impact my school and students so much.  My first wish is silly.  I already know what I need to know from spending day after day with these young people.  As for the latter, I suspect my nuanced understanding of human development as far more than a test score has been getting in the way of my students’ performance.  On test day, I have reassured them that I know how smart they have become through their hard work.  They believe in my belief in them and probably trust that I will be there if they slip up like I have been before.

Next time, instead of reminding them of how much I care about them, I will help them see the doors that open and close based on their scores. I will tell them that doing well means having choices and having more power and agency to determine the next steps in their own lives. I will tell them that I care about their results because I care about them. I will help them see that the tests are the only way that people who don’t have the time to come into our classroom and listen to how amazing they are can find out what they know.  To the extent that I can, I will help my living-in-the-present eleven year olds see past the people they already know to imagine those they don’t know yet and to have those people, including their future selves, matter.

Places and Bases

Recently in math class we have been working with decimals. This is one of the areas in math where a solid foundation in place value will take you a long way. If for instance you want to know the product of 15 and 3.2 it’s nice to know that 10 x 3.2 is simply a decimal move and 5 x 3.2 is just half again. I am always surprised to find that place value is not well understood by 5th grade. I guess I need to stop being surprised. But perhaps place value is just a little more complicated than we give it credit for, and maybe there is just not enough emphasis in the earlier grades.

Let’s look at the base-ten place value table:

Thousands Hundreds Tens Ones Tenths Hundredths
1000 100 10 1 1/10 1/100
103 102 101 100 10-1 10-2

The reason for the ease of computations with 10 and powers of 10 is that ten is the base. This is why when you multiply 10 times anything “you just add a zero.” I try to teach my students to use the more mathematically accurate phrasing of “you just move the decimal,” but it’s no more challenging. The ones, or units, are the center of the place value system – all other places are exponentially larger or smaller than the base to the zero power.

Exponent review:

  • All numbers to the zero power are equal to 1
  • Negative exponents are just powers of base (ten in this case) in the denominator.

To understand place value, I find that it is helpful to examine what life is like in other bases. Let’s look at a base-five place value table like the one above.

One hundred twenty-fives Twenty-fives Fives Ones Fifths Twenty-fifths
1000 100 10 1 1/10 1/100
53 52 51 50 5-1 5-2

In base 5 there is no numeral 6, or 5 for that matter. There are only 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4. Once you get to 5 the notation is 10 or more clearly written, 10five. The number 12ten is 22five, and the number 78ten is 303five.

When we want to multiply any number in base five times five all we have to do is move the decimal! 115 (which is 6 to us) times 105 (which is 5)  is 110five (which is 30 to us). The product is still true regardless of the base. Likewise 22.2five (which is 12 and two-fifths) times 5 is 222five (12.4 * 5 = 62).

The place value system is dense, but when we understand the places and bases of our number system everything makes a whole lot more sense (or perhaps cents or pence if you live on the other side of the pond fence).

Solving Problems that Matter

Math class goes like this: Teachers give problems; students do problems; teachers give the answers.  Teachers give more problems; students do more problems; teachers give more answers. Repeat.  Eventually, students get a grade. And then they know if they are good at math.  My students know this is how it is by the time they start middle school.  But in my class it doesn’t work that way.  Sure, I give problems, and yes, students do problems. And I have answers, but I keep them to myself. Knowing their answers make sense has to come from students themselves. My job is not to let them know whether they are right or wrong, but instead my job is to convince them that they have power and control over their own problem solving.

This may seem strange.  You may wonder, “How will the students know they are right if the teacher doesn’t give the answers?”  Here’s what I wonder “The last time you had to figure something out, how did you know you were right?”  I’m guessing you probably didn’t find someone in a position of authority and ask them to look it up in an answer key to confirm that you are a good problem-solver.  Genuine problems come our way without solutions.  If we had solutions, they wouldn’t be problems.  I’d be willing to bet you did one of the following as you solved the last problem mattered to you:

  • You didn’t what do do and you talked it over with your friends.
  • You slept on it, hoping it would go away and woke up ready to work on solutions.
  • You had an idea, tried it out mentally, and satisfied it might work, you took action.
  • You had an idea, shared it with a trusted friend or co-worker or family member to make sure it made sense to them too, and if it didn’t, you adjusted accordingly.
  • You tried your solution, saw it didn’t work, learned from your mistake and tried something else instead.

My math class offers students the opportunity to do what we all do when we have problems.  And if they knew I would provide answers as soon as they get stuck, the game would be over.  They wouldn’t that they are in charge of solving the  problems that matter to them.