A Math Teacher’s Fear of Computerized Testing

I know this post is slightly off the January topic, but I wanted to get back into posting.

When our school system initially switched to the computerized version of our high school assessment for algebra, I had the same concerns that many mathematics teachers do.  I worried mainly about how my students would interact with the test questions.  

Learning and understanding mathematics is a hands on experience.  Students learn to circle and underline key information in order to analyze problems.  They draw pictures to visualize scenarios.  They create tables and graphs to represent patterns and functions.  They write out their steps to solve equations.  Their pencil and paper are vital tools in analyzing, solving, and justifying their solutions.

The core of mathematics problem-solving is attacking a problem from several directions with key strategies and tools.My fear was that the tools and strategies that made students successful in my class would be abandoned when a mouse and keyboard were in my students hands.  I wondered if they would write their work down or try to do it in their heads.  I worried about how they would be able to work with tables and graphs with ease when they couldn’t write on them to count the units or follow the pattern.  I worried that the temptation to click the answer and move to the next problem would keep my students from being patient and thoughtful problem-solvers.  Most of all, I was worried that the art of a written mathematics solution would be lost.

Thankfully, my students were able to adapt. They didn’t abandon their trusty pencils. They still worked out solutions, but they also worked with the computer to highlight and mark on the screen. I also found many students turning their pencils around to make pointers to count the slope of a line or work through a set of data.

Our ability to teach our students to adapt to situations will be the key to the new era of testing. With tests that are hours long with questions in styles and formats that are new, our students will need to be flexible, critical thinkers. As teachers, we will need to be confident that are students can and will adapt to change. 

Is it time to get off the bus? Will the plane remain in flight?

Aside

>

As we prepare for the Common Core, new assessments, and new evaluation systems, I often wonder are we going about this the wrong way. The more I hear people describe our current status prior to the implementation of all of these changes, the more I begin to hope we are not making the wrong choices.

There are two analogies related to all of these changes that I have heard that make me laugh and cringe at the same time.  The first analogy relates our preparation for new testing to the movie, Speed.  You know the scene where there is a bomb on the bus and they send a second bus next to it to transport the people off.  The analogy that someone made in my district is that we are on the first bus circling around waiting to transported to safety. We can’t get off yet because we still have our current testing.  While we are circling, the other bus is analogous to the preparation waiting for that moment when the first bus unloads and the new tests begin.  Hopefully, there are no casualties like the movie.  Hopefully, we all get transported safely off the old testing bus onto the new Common Core based assessment one.  

The second analogy relates the new teacher evaluation system to building a plane in flight.  As I write this, teachers are piloting teacher evaluation systems that will go into effect next year.  In many cases, several components of these systems need more than a year of piloting.  We should not be rating a teacher’s success with a system that still needs to be tweaked or changed as we go.  For example, how can you expect teachers to be evaluated on a system that uses the Danielson Framework when they have not been properly trained on how it defines good teaching?  In our district, teachers are writing student learning objectives to evaluate student growth.  The pilot teachers are testing out these SLOs this year, but there is no guarantee that these are actually effective tools for evaluating student growth and teacher success.  

My question is “Why rush?”.  If we are to keep to the promise that the Common Core and the new evaluation systems are going to create stronger students and more effective teachers, then we should be taking our steps carefully to make sure that these changes are lasting and meaningful rather than just another phase in the swing of the education pendulum.  

The Standards for Mathematical Practice

The Standards for Mathematical Practice are eight simple descriptions of active learners in the mathematics classroom. Essentially, they are the habits of student mathematicians.
1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
4. Model with mathematics.
5. Use appropriate tools strategically.
6. Attend to precision.
7. Look for and make use of structure.
8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

My favorite, and the most important in my mind, is number one on the list. Getting students to make sense of a problem and persevere is half the battle. If a teacher can get students to approach a problem with an open mind and a commitment to solving it, the other practices will fall in place. The biggest challenge and maybe the biggest strength of the Common Core is the push to get students to persevere in problem solving.

So often, students want to know the procedure or list of steps in solving a problem. Their one and only goal is to get the right answer. They don’t appreciate that there is not always one way to get to the correct answer.

What would it be like if students didn’t view math as a list of steps? What if mathematics was not viewed as a one way street that you follow from point A to B? How would students discuss problems if they viewed math as a box of tools that they can use in multiple ways to solve a variety of problems? I already try to foster these ideas in my classroom, but it can be difficult when students have been through years of “this is how you get the right answer.”

My daughter is in kindergarten this year. I am hopeful that by the time she is old enough to be a student in my algebra class, she and her classmates will be those “student mathematicians” that the Common Core promises. Hopefully, they will thrive from solving problems in creative ways.

How do we get from point A to point B?

I am fortunate to teach in a school and a district where the Common Core and PARCC assessments have been the topic of discussion for a while.  I think I have a pretty strong understanding of the standards and the assessments. I wonder if other teachers feel they have the same understanding.

As we make the transition to the Common Core, my main concern is how we are going to get from point A, the standards, to point B, the assessments.  At point A, we are discussing the content standards and the Standards for Mathematical Practice.  We look at domains and clusters, and try to make sense of what that means for our current courses. From the perspective of point B, we preview a few released prototypes of a test that is supposed to be much different than our current assessments. The missing part, which is most important to me, is what is going on between those two points. What is instruction going to look and sound like as we take the standards and implement them to prepare our students to demonstrate their understanding on these new assessments?

When I ask this question, I often get the general answers like students will be problem-solving, applying the mathematical practices, writing and critiquing arguments, reading more non fiction, etc. What I am really looking for is how does all of this translate to daily instruction and how do teachers get students to transition to being more active and curious learners, who can take on a new style of assessment. How do we take our current style of teaching and our current content and adapt it to reach the new expectations?

We can easily take the Common Core and incorporate it into our language and curriculum guides, but the challenge is making it real and alive in classrooms. I wish we were moving from point A to point B with more discussion of happens in between. If field testing is around the corner, I hope we begin to have those discussions sooner than later. For some teachers and students, the new way of thinking may be a difficult concept to make reality.

Out Sick

In most professions, calling out sick is just that.  You call and tell your boss that you are not coming into work.  As a teacher, calling out is not that simple.  First, you debate back and forth whether or not you could make it through a day with whatever illness you have acquired. Next, you think about all the work you have to put into being out, both, before and after your absence.  Once you have come to terms that you really are too sick or too contagious to go in, you begin the task of getting a substitute.  Depending on the school, you might be calling for a substitute, logging onto an online substitute call system, or calling someone in the school to get you a substitute.  No matter how you are required to get a substitute, you are still out of bed doing something to find your temporary replacement.  

Of course, you are still not off to bury yourself under the blankets to sleep off the terrible sickness that is momentarily making your life miserable.  No, you now have to make sure that someone can find your seating charts and emergency plans.  What is even worse is what do you do if the sickness lingers, and the emergency plans run out.  In that case, you drag yourself to the computer to type up plans to email to someone at school.

Even worse than the hassle of finding a substitute and making lesson plans is the guilt that you feel about being out.  A million thoughts run through your mind.  Did I leave enough work?  Will the kids behave for the substitute?  How far behind will we be in the curriculum?  How can I make up a missed day of preparation for the upcoming standardized test?  Am I being a burden on the person stuck making copies or dealing with the substitute?  Is it really worth it to be home?

It is amazing how teachers think of themselves and their health last on their list of worries.

A Day in the Life of a Common Core Teacher

For the most part, I think my teaching is not that far from what Common Core expects.  My expectations for students are high, my lessons are rigorous, and my class is student-centered.  The other day, I began wondering what could I do to push myself and my students further in the direction of Common Core.  I thought how could I put more ownership in my students’ hands, while still providing them support when they need it.

Rather than planning my lesson around a series of modeled examples, I decided to think how could I get the students to connect to their previous knowledge in order to accomplish a related task.  I needed to figure out how to provide the support for students to problem-solve on their own without direct instruction.  The lesson was on the basic operations of radicals.  I knew that the students could relate basic operations of algebraic expressions to radicals.  Knowing the connection, I created a two column worksheet putting the algebraic expressions next to the radicals.  

Going into the lesson, I wondered if the students would be able to handle the lesson without some direct instruction.  Some of my students struggle with independent learning.  They are dependent on having someone close at their side to give confirmation and support.  To my pleasant surprise, all of my students were successful with taking what they already knew and connecting it to new learning.  All I needed to do was set the stage for learning.  

As I continue to plan lessons as a Common Core teacher, I hope to continue leading my students toward more independent learning, in which they can begin to make connections without the structure already under their feet.  I hope they can take those building blocks of prior learning and connect them to learn new skills and to form their own methods of finding solutions.  

A day in the life. . .

Thinking about the title of this blog, I wonder how I should finish that statement. Should it be “A Day in the Life” of a teacher, department chairman, leader, role model, problem-solver, secretary, data collector, mentor, colleague, mother, student, or friend? I could probably keep adding to the list of jobs that I have throughout the day. The bottom line is that when the 7:45am bell rings, I become the master of multi-tasking.

I begin my day with a quick check of my calendar. How many meetings do I have? Are there any observations today? Do I need to meet with a teacher? Do I have to write the technology column or the leadership column this week? Do I have an after school duty this week? What should be put at the top of my to do list?

After seeing that my week is jam-packed with the usual meetings and responsibilities, I move to my emails. Here is where the multi-tasking begins. An email from the guidance department with a request for a schedule change prompts an email to the teacher of the student. An email from my principal prompts me to start writing my technology column. One of the math teachers emails needing batteries, markers, and index cards, which sends me to OfficeDepot online. Our school secretary sends an email about completing Declaration of Intent forms. Since keeping my job is important, I pause for a minute to submit the form online.

After completing several more email-related tasks, I finally get to my lesson planning, grading, and other tasks on my to do list. But before I can get started, I need to run upstairs to check to see if I have class coverage and to sign in for the day. A little voice in my head yells “Yes!” when I don’t get coverage.

I return to my office and the homeroom bell rings. Every day, one of my students checks in with me at the beginning of homeroom. It has become his routine. I think he has adopted me as his school mom. I need to remember to take the time to stop my work for a few minutes to acknowledge that he needs someone to talk to.

Now, I can finally plan! I grab my textbook, curriculum guide, and flash drive of prior lessons. I have always liked planning lessons. What better way to combine my creativity and love of math than in a lesson. As a review of factoring for Algebra II, I decide to plan an activity modeled after speed dating. The students will sit in two circles facing each other. Each person has a different factoring problem with the answer on the back. He or she will share the problem with his or her partner. After the pairs complete their problems, they will check their answers. After a few minutes, the outside circle will rotate. By the end of the period, the students will have completed fifteen problems, and have worked with fifteen other students.

I print the activities and the bell rings. The activity went well with my classes. The students enjoyed rotating through the problems with different people. I will have to remember this for other topics.