The Numbers Lie or The Aftermath of Teaching to the Test

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose

You all know how much I hate talking about other teachers, especially since I’d hate to bring such karma on myself. Nonetheless, I’m conflicted by the growing discrepancy between my students’ applied knowledge and their NYS Math Test scores. I’m not gassed in the least about the New York State Math Test and its ability to measure whether or not my students are prepared for the next year’s challenges. I understand that, as far as standardized tests go, the state math test is … simple. I also understand that it’s a snapshot of what my students can do, a snapshot largely limited in scope, unequal for all schools in the state, and easily swayed by a myriad of factors including whether or not the student ate breakfast that morning or if they remember how to multiply integers. Fair enough.

On the same token, I can’t help but gnaw my teeth when I see the scores and how people have lauded the students who came into my school. Most of the incoming students have 3s and 4s in their state math and ELA (English / Language Arts) test, and statistically, that’s pushed our scores a good 10 percentage points higher than when we left for summer break in June. Again, it all sounds like good news. Over the summer, I even took the time to analyze their scores more thoroughly and I tried to (and couldn’t) keep a tempered reaction to the potential excellence I beheld. Needless to say, I spoke too soon.

For the last couple of days, we’ve been working on understanding the groupings for real numbers (i.e. whole, natural, rational, etc.) For my high-school level readers out there, I even introduced them to set notation for these groups so they become familiar with it for now and advanced math. I personally thought I prepared an informative first-week lesson. For the two classes that have had me before, it was successful, and just from taking some informal assessments and looking at their classwork, I have a good sense that even the more deficient students have a grasp of what the difference between rational and irrational numbers are. Again, fair enough.

But the class whose students I’m mostly unfamiliar with has had a hard time grasping the material. I tried to rationalize their lack of participation. Are they nervous about having to come to a new and unfamiliar school with a little more structure than their previous schools? Are they still adjusting to my teaching style and on-and-off ebullience about my subject matter? Did they really just forget anywhere between 50-60% of their math knowledge over the summer (as I noticed in my diagnostic analyses)?

I’m not sure, but here’s this: when students in the class can’t give me a number that’s between 2 and 3 in the 7th grade, that’s a big hurdle since, by NYS standards, they should have learned this in 5th grade (correct me if I’m wrong). When students can’t take the square root of a number even when I give them the definition is trouble. When students can’t tell me if 17 is closer to 16 or 25, and the differences between the distances there, that’s an issue. Especially since the basic elements of these questions have come up in the previous 2 tests.

This logically leads me to think that, aside from the questions I’ve asked myself,:

a. there’s a bit of a language deficiency that I haven’t researched
b. I’ve taught the students who had me last year for more applied math while these students haven’t been taught that
c. they got a little too much help on the math test from the person who administered the test.

I know. Bold statement.

What do you think? Am I a bit cynical or am I onto something? Obviously, I’ll still work with the students, and I have every intention of making those test scores into a more accurate reflection of whether they’ve mastered the material or not. I just have to ask if they were really taught or just taught to the test.

jose, who STILL has an aversion to bulletin boards when there’s so much important work to do …