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Testing: Not What It Used to Be

It happened last week:  Teachers went back to work on Thursday and Friday in preparation for the return of our students on Monday the 8th. 



At our staff meeting on Thursday morning, we were presented with the abysmal results of the periodic testing we do three times per year: August, January, and April.  Except that January’s tests were given on December 18th and 19th. Students had holiday parties on the 20th, after which they were released for two and a half weeks to enjoy their winter break.


Most of the 36 students in our tiny school scored below the 10th percentile on all parts of the math and reading tests.  We teachers were harangued about these results and instructed to create an action plan to improve them.


I stared in disbelief at our principal.  Who would give a series of tests to elementary children in the final days before the winter holidays?  What results could the higher ups possibly be expecting? 


When I looked at the breakdown in scores, I noticed the report-out included how long each child took to test.  Out of 42 math questions, most students spent 20 to 30 minutes total on them.  This is not a timed test; students can spend any amount of time they need to finish it.  They can also work for awhile and take a break.   Taking 21 minutes to complete it means the child spent only 30 seconds per question.  Surprising in the week before Christmas?  I doubt it.


 It’s also a test that adjusts to what the child can do, meaning that once he clicks ‘enter’ for a test answer, he can no longer change it.  That’s because MAP adjusts the cognitive level of questions based on prior answers.  MAP means ‘Measures of Academic Progress’.  It is an arm of the NWEA.org, and its purpose is to provide the school and the child’s parents with benchmarks of learning.  A secondary purpose appears to be making teachers feel, once again, that they have failed.


So what do these questions look like?  Here’s a sample from the 5th grade practice test available on NWEA.org:


Think about what this question is asking.  Two operations must be performed: First, subtract 34 cents from one dollar.  That tells you the change to be expected.  Then find the coins that add up to that amount. This is considered a third-grade skill, so if a fifth grader cannot answer it, he is automatically punched down a few grade levels in his achievement status.


But in order to understand money, one must understand decimals, and how they relate to our monetary system.  It’s learnable, but effort is required, particularly at a young age.  Most of my students are not interested in anything that requires work to learn.  This is probably a biproduct of the ‘gamey’ online platforms that students have been using for nearly a decade. 


Here’s another math question:

Do you know what to do? 

What if the child decides he should add the two amounts, getting a total of 17 cents.  But he doesn’t know what to do with the sentence “He has no money left over.”  Can he ask his teacher for clarification?  No.  But he might.  It is then up to the teacher to decide whether to help him or not.  She’s been instructed to say that she cannot help or clarify anything.  But most teachers understand that this demoralizes a child, and she wants her student to feel good about taking the test, so she probably says something like, “It just means you’re not figuring out change on this question.  So what do you think you should do now?”


Here's a final question:

This question is exactly in line with Common Core, which seeks to require deeper understanding of math concepts than merely performing them, often asking questions that require a child to understand mathematical mistakes.   5th graders are usually ten years old for at least half their school year.  What ten-year-old do you know who 1) thinks deeply; and 2) takes the time to parse a problem in detail?  If a child does that, his brain is wired for giftedness at the age of ten. 


We have all been sold a bill of goods where Common Core is concerned.  Every child is expected to have the attributes of advanced cognition.  But if that is the result we want, we need to make the test matter to the child.  At present, it doesn’t.  Yet we adults all behave as if the child did the best he could, when the reality is probably more based on how he felt that day or even, that moment.


If the child doesn’t choose the correct answer between A and B but he gets the calculation correct in the bottom box, what does that indicate about his math thinking? I would think it indicates he’s got a proper foundation for addition with place value, but would those who created and will grade this test think the same?


If my student asked for help on this question, I would have reminded him that he knows what to do with place value in multi-digit addition.  And then I would have advised him to do the calculating for the problem on his scratch paper first and compare his total with Steps 1 and 2, and then with the answer choices. 

This advice is prohibited, but why? 


What is the purpose for this type of questioning? 

It seems like a sequence of ‘gotcha’ opportunities against the child.  The more we see questions like this on tests that matter, the more likely we are to teach to the test.


And speaking of ‘gotcha’ opportunities, that’s what the staff meeting to share test results felt like.  How can anyone take seriously a test that was given to ten-year-olds on the day before their class holiday party?


Now back to the action plan I’m supposed to create to improve test scores for April (or whenever our principal next decides to test):  regardless of what I write in my “plan”, I’ll be giving a practice test from MAP weekly, but not on individual computers.  No, I’ll guide my students through the test one question at a time and get them to (try to) think deeply about how each question should be answered. In effect, I’ll be using the test itself as my instruction tool for one math lesson per week.


This is where we are, currently, in public education. CYA activities abound, from the teacher's perspective. Training kids how to test is necessarily more important than teaching them the skills needed for true success.

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