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The Numbers Lie or The Aftermath of Teaching to the Test

Jose 9 Comments

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 …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Jose VilsonThe Numbers Lie or The Aftermath of Teaching to the Test

Comments 9

  1. J.M. Holland

    You should not be surprised that your new kids can’t cut it. I am dealing with the same thing with 4 yr olds who had from another teacher before me. I have to teach then things they should know while reteaching them things they shouldn’t know, like how to start a chant at circle time. Suggestion, get your kids to write about how they took the test or passed the test. The proof is in the pencil.

    J.M. Hollands last blog post..Standardized tests in kindergarten?

  2. Jackie

    This is a great post and something I think about often. I teach 7th grade math. Anyway, I remember 2 years ago I had one student who was extremely behind in basic skills. Also, he didn’t always do his work, and I’m pretty sure he failed all 4 quarters (or at least 3). Anyway, we were shocked to see that he got a 2 on the state test.

    As I’m sure you know, in 7th grade as long as you get a 2 on the test you don’t have to go to summer school. (They may have changed that last year- I hope!) So here was a kid who was probably at a 5th grade math level getting passed along to the next grade when he WAS NOT READY. I personally think the state test is just WAY TOO EASY.

    So far (knocks on wood) my kids have excelled on the state test. They have went up levels and went up 50+ points. I think it’s because my tests are harder than the state test. I think I challenge them more (I hope?), so that when they take the state test they think it’s easy for the most part (which in many ways it is).

    Still, I never want to just teach for the test. I really hope I don’t. I give them projects; I don’t just go through the curriculum to cover it all. If I see they are stuck on a concept, I will spend more time on it. I try to go deeper into concepts, but it’s hard when you have a million topics to cover in a short time frame.

    How do you know if you are teaching to the test?

  3. Tracy Rosen

    Love the comic. In particular fitting after a heated conversation with another teacher who does not want to allow his students to use a laptop in class throughout the year because he won’t be allowed it in the test at the end of the year…

    Re: teaching to tests. In doing so, we give students the permission to forget. By saying you need to know this for the test implies that you don’t need to know it anywhere else. I am not at all shocked that students forget what they once knew for a big test. We live in a memorize, spew out, and forget educational culture. Still.

    Tracy Rosens last blog post..First 2 days: the forensic report

  4. Bronx2020

    This is all very instructive for me. I’m hoping to begin teaching next fall — and I’ve heard a great deal (mostly complaints by current teacher’s I’ve spoken to) about “teaching to the test.”

    Jose, it seems your take is (and correct me if I’m wrong) that if you teach your kids properly, they will ace the test, whereas if you teach them how to take the test, you’re doing them a great disservice.

    Bronx2020s last blog post..Timelines, etcetera

  5. Jovan

    I actually just had a similar experience on Friday.

    I have a group of students this year who have experienced nothing but inconsistency and have learned in the absence of structure and what I’ve learned is that:

    a) it’s going to take me some major time to get then used to applying their math and thinking through a variety of problems rather than simply regurgitating theorems and formulas.

    b) language or rather the students’ lack of it is a major contributing factor to their eventual success. Many of my students (and I’m sure yours or any other urban math teachers’) have a limited vocabulary and as such have huge problems when they encounter questions that are structured linguistically in a different manner different from their regular patterns of speech. I often find myself translating and interpreting questions for them so they can use the math that they’ve been taught.

    c) standardized math tests do not just measure a student’s mathematics aptitude. Those tests also, implicitly, measure their life experiences and mastery of the standard English.

    The above situations have left me to conclude that I must teach vocabulary and logic as well as math through riddles, games, and other methods…and that I have to get with the other math teachers in my building so that we’re all giving those kids the same type of exposure to those additional learning experiences.

    Push on though brother, they will be better for having gone through your class. The babies are much more than a test score but I’m sure you already know that.

    Jovans last blog post..Cultural Relevance

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