Barry Garelick, who wrote various letters under the name Huck Finn, published here, is at work writing what will become "Conversations on the Rifle Range". This will be a documentation of his experiences teaching math as a long-term substitute. OILF proudly presents episode number 12:
Back in September, when I was doing my sub-assignment for the high school, I attended a math department meeting the day before school began. Sally from the District office presided, and among the many things she told us at that session was that this year the students in the District would not have to take what is known as the STAR test, by order of the superintendent of the District. “And as you know, the Superintendent is like the Pope. What he says goes.”
While this last was uttered partly in jest, the reaction in the room was celebratory. The STAR exam has been an annual ritual in California and in May of each year about two weeks are devoted to a review and prep for this test, which is keyed to California’s pre-Common Core math and English standards. Such activities inspire accusations that schools are “teaching to the test”. But now in the midst of a transition to implementing Common Core math standards, California was looking at the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) exam that would be given officially starting the following school year. (Actually, they don’t call it an exam; they call it an “assessment”. You’ll forgive me if I call it an exam.) For now, however, the state would be field testing the exam. What this meant was anyone’s guess: perhaps this first go-round on SBAC would be to provide a baseline to see how students scored prior to full implementation of Common Core. Or perhaps it was to fine tune the questions. Or both. Or neither.
In any event, when I started my new assignment at the middle school, I had to have my classes take a practice SBAC exam. The day before I was to take all my classes into the computer lab for the practice exam, I attended an after-school faculty meeting.
I had started my assignment at the school earlier that week, so the principal introduced me to the group. I was welcomed by applause, and urgings by fellow teachers to help myself to the tangerines that were brought in for the occasion. I took two tangerines, and as if he were taking that as his cue, the principal started the discussion.
“As you know, we are in transition to the Common Core, and one aspect of this is the SBAC test that will be given this spring. We want students to have a chance to practice with some sample questions. This does two things. It will get them used to the computer interface, because the test is given entirely on computers. And secondly it will get them used to the questions which are not the typical multiple choice question like on the STAR tests. The SBAC is more of an ‘authentic’ test.”
He went on about how Common Core will change the way we teach, but the words all blurred together in my mind amidst phrases like “critical thinking”, “higher order thinking”, and “deeper understanding”. I do recall a conversation between two teachers at my table. One mentioned she saw some of the questions and said "Yes, there are still multiple choice questions on the test. I was very disappointed to see that."
Well, OK, I like open response questions too, but I get rather tired of the “it’s inauthentic if it’s multiple choice” mentality. I took the CSET math exam required in California to be certified to teach math in secondary schools. The multiple choice questions were not exactly easy; I would hesitate to call the exam “inauthentic”. What I find inauthentic is judging seventh and eighth graders’ math ability based on how well they are able to apply prior knowledge to new problems that are substantially different than what they have seen before or have worked with.
On the day of the practice exam the assistant principal took charge of my first group—the first of my three pre-algebra classes and probably the most cooperative of all of my students. He spoke in a loud, commanding voice and gave instructions on how to log on, what page to go to, what things to click on, and had everyone do things at the same time. I only know that I could not duplicate this feat for any of my classes; students would rush ahead, ask me to explain again what I had just said, and inevitably asked “Will the test affect our grades?” I explained that it was for practice and did not affect their grades, nor would the actual test given later in the semester, but the question kept coming up. When it came time to take my fifth period algebra students to the computer lab, I had written on the white board: “No, this test will not affect your grades.”
A boy named Peter exuberantly agreed. “Yes, Mr. G, that’s a great idea, because…” I couldn’t hear the rest amidst the noise of the class, which then followed me outside the classroom to the computer lab. The instructions had to be repeated several times, as I had done throughout the day.
Because this was a practice test, I felt no compunction about giving students help in answering the various questions. For the most part, questions were reasonable, though the students found some difficult. One question I recall on the seventh grade test was “Enter the value of p so that 5/6 - 1/3n is equivalent to p(5-2n). Seventh graders have only learned about how to distribute multiplication, but not to factor. While the answer of 1/6 seems to jump out at adults, this problem presented difficulty to most of my seventh graders, probably because they hadn’t seen anything like it. The variable “n” also was a distraction. I gave them hints like “Can p be a fraction? What fraction would you multiply 5 by to get 5/6?”
On the eighth grade test, one open-response item was quite complex, involving pulse rates versus weights of various animals, which students had to analyze in terms of slope and a “trend line”. One of the questions was “Interpret the slope of the line from Item 1 in the context of the situation.”
At the end of sixth period, I dismissed the students, and went back to my classroom. I realized that when Common Core kicked in students would be “taught to the test” for these all of these particular types of questions. I have no problem with teaching to a test if the test covers material that should be mastered. I do have a problem when part of this is learning how to write explanations that will pass muster according to scoring rubrics.
As I got ready to leave for the day, one of my sixth period students popped her head in the door. “Mr. G, will the test today affect our grade in the class?” I said it wouldn’t, but not for the last time that week.