Sunday, September 28, 2014

Will better math tests be good enough?

PARCC and Smarter Balanced are the two multistate consortia working on new assessments for the Common Core State Standards. After four years of design and pilot testing and field testing, they're nearly ready for prime-time use--meaning administration to large groups of students for use in statewide accountability systems.  Since Kentucky hasn't chosen to use either assessment yet, I've been noticing news about both, including a rising debate about the ways they approach mathematics.

The consortia argue that their new versions are definitely better than existing multiple choice math tests because of new on-line options.  As an EdWeek report recently summarized:
Unlike previous state assessments, those being developed by the two federally funded consortia will include complex, multipart word problems that students will answer on screen. While some of those questions will provide built-in tools that allow students to put points on a graph or draw lines on a ready-made picture, other questions will ask them to write their answers in narrative form, using a keyboard.
But others argue that the computer tools still aren't close enough to the real work of using math to solve problems.  In the same EdWeek account, David Foster of the Silicon Valley Mathematics Initiative shared his concerns:
"I'm a mathematician, and I never solve problems by merely sitting at the keyboard. I have to take out paper and pencil and sketch and doodle and tinker around and draw charts," he said. "Of course, I use spreadsheets all the time, but I don't even start a spreadsheet until I know what I want to put in the cells.

"All Smarter Balanced and PARCC are going to look at is the final explanation that is written down," he said, "and if there's a flaw in the logic, there's no way to award kids for the work they really did and thought about."
Mr. Foster added: "I've played with the platform, and it makes me sick. And I've done it with problems I've written."
I'm suspect they're both right.  PARCC and Smarter Balanced are offering some big steps forward in how students answer math prompts, and yet they are also far from inviting students to use math in ways that are close to real life applications on the job, in the home, or in civic life.

For the long-term education discussion, this debate turns yet another spotlight on an enduring puzzle: how can schools develop a balanced commitment to the skills that are easy to measure and the skills that matter at least as much but don't fit easily into standardized assessments?

Do note that Kentucky is not signed up to use either PARCC or Smarter Balanced.  Our current K-PREP assessments use methods that were in use years before we adopted Common Core, and any changes from that will occur when the Department of Education seeks new bids for our testing contracts.  The consortia will be eligible to submit proposals, in open competition with other companies that think they can provide the data we need.

--Posted by Susan Perkins Weston

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