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Math        < Previous        Next >


When Math Tests Don't Add Up


Q. My son's math grades and test scores seem OK. He never seems to have much homework or complain about math. If his teachers are happy, shouldn't we be happy?


Yes and no. Of course, you should be happy that your son is not identified as having trouble with math. It's just that, with grade inflation and the pressure for students to do well on governmental standardized tests, evaluating whether a student is doing OK is complicated and confusing.


It comes down to how well your child really can do in the timeless tasks of math. You can't go by an abstract number on a standardized test, or a letter grade given by a teacher who most likely did not major in math, didn't like the subject, and didn't advance beyond college algebra.


Even on the state and national arenas, there are allegations that educators are "cooking the books" to make math achievement look better than it really is. When your state's eighth-graders average above the 85th percentile on the state-ordered standardized math test, but average closer to the 50th percentile on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), you know there's a problem. And that kind of a credibility gap is going on in all subjects, not just math, in just about every state and every district.


Another woe: What if the math tests don't really test math, or if the math grades don't really grade math? Today's assessments are tightly matched to the curriculum. If the standardized curriculum doesn't cover traditional math, the tests won't measure how well the kids learned it. Of 50 items in a recent Ohio Achievement test for third graders, only three involved any computation. That's 6%. That means 94% of the questions were on Whole Math topics such as abstract thinking and problem-solving. So even if a teacher has taught traditional math skills to the students, today's tests won't measure it. And if the tests don't measure a skill, how do you know whether your child has mastered it or not?


Then there's the whole problem of calculators. Kids as young as kindergarten are allowed to do at least some of their math exercises with calculators instead of working out simple problems in their heads, or play-acting the answers with manipulative blocks and such. As the high-stakes testing years arrive, often with fourth-grade, the students are all using calculators for the math portion of the tests . . . and parents and taxpayers have no idea. They see those relatively high scores, and have no idea that it wasn't the students doing the math . . . it was the calculators doing the math!

What's to be done? Insist on accountability and transparency from your educational decision-makers, especially your local school board and superintendent. Work hard to get solid, traditional, content-rich math textbooks in place in your district. And advocate for truth-in-teaching to your state board of education and state education commissioner, not to mention your state senators and others responsible for funding what goes on in our classrooms.


Homework: For more about the controversial math standards and tests in Ohio, see:


By Susan Darst Williams Math 09 2008


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