When Math Tests Don't Add
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: