One Test Could Be the Deciding Factor
My heart goes out to young students at this time of year, especially this year. They are living with the specter of one all-important standardized test and the possible implications of their performance on that test. I’m talking about the end-of-grade (EOG) test that is required in North Carolina. Even as “the state considers eliminating EOG testing” (TWC News), in favor of a series of four tests given through the school year, students are facing a single test that could determine whether they will be promoted at the end of this school year.
Last week one my students informed me that “This year the test counts.” Mark is a 7th grader whose math grade has risen steadily from a very low C to a solid B since we began working together last fall. Still he’s worried because he failed the EOG last year, when the results “didn’t count.” Mark is unclear about whether he will be retained if he fails the test again this year. So are his parents. I think he’s going to pass, both the test and 7th grade, but he is unsure, and his past performance on the EOG looms large.
When I asked one of the girls in my free “math play” group what she had learned in math class this week, she responded, “How to take the EOG.” She didn’t seem to be too worried about the test, even though she’s not at all confident that she’s going to pass. I wonder whether she understands the potential implications.
I just began working with another 4th grade student whose mother has been told he will very likely be retained if he doesn’t pass the EOG. He has ADD. That means he can have trouble focusing in class and on tests. He is allowed extra time to take tests, but it isn’t clear to me how that might help his focus. And even though his performance is improving, if he fails the EOG there is a good possibility he will have to repeat 4th grade. Summer school is not being offered in our area this year, so that one test score could be the determining factor. What’s most disturbing to me is that this little boy is actually pretty good at math. He’s just not very good at taking tests. Yet.
I understand the need for assessment, but I don’t believe that a single test should ever be the deciding factor for the retention decision. It’s seems to me that the state is trying to apply a cookie cutter approach to gauging the abilities of children whose learning styles and test-taking proficiencies are unique to each individual.
Focus on Word Problems
But the system is what it is, at least for now, and it will certainly change, for better or for worse. Anyway, it isn’t my job to worry about the politics of education; it is my job to teach math to my students. And at this time of year, it is my job to help prepare them for the EOG.
I’m not saying that I “teach to the test.” I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to, given that I work outside the system. I only have access to the materials that the state makes available to the public on the internet. Still, I am not completely in the dark about what will be tested. I am very familiar with the curriculum standards for every grade, and I’ve downloaded the most recent sample tests that have been posted to the state’s “Accountability Services Division.” One think I am sure of is that a significant percentage of the questions will be in the form of word problems.
So here’s my approach to working with students at this time of year. To the extent possible, I incorporate the required skills into word problems that I make up. I teach my students to read the problem twice, to circle important information, to box the question, to consider drawing a picture, to think about whether the problem involves just one computation step or more, and to use key words to decide which operation is appropriate in each step.
I even use word problems for part of our geometry work. I ask questions like, “What shape has four equal angles and four sides, two of one length and two of another length?” The process of interpreting a description like this results in a deeper understanding of geometrical attributes than a statement like, “Draw a rectangle.”
Sure, I also include examples in which the student has to interpret numerical expressions and figures, but in my experience these kinds of problems are easier for most kids than are word problems.
Using word problems, rather than simple numerical expressions, allows students to develop a sense of how math applies to the real world while also reinforcing specific skills such as adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, and working with fractions and percentages. And because I make up the problems, I have the latitude to create problems that involve the specific interests of each of my students. So even though we’re preparing for the EOG, the work is interesting for the kids.
Let’s Not Forget the Fun
While I’m working with my students, I am careful not to add to the worry that they are already experiencing. I don’t talk about “the test” too much. And we take breaks from word problems to play multiplication hopscotch, draw glyphs, and compete in pizza fractions and addition war. The winner gets Skittles. So does the loser.
With the specter of the EOG looming over them, students are under a lot of stress. So there is no more important time to help them have fun while learning math.