Friday, May 15, 2015

Tasks and Standardized Tests

In the world of mathematics, what could be more opposite in the eyes of most than tasks and standardized tests? As an avid Twitter follower/poster (@doctor_math) I normally see the two opposing view points clash. I realize this is an oversimplification and many educators could be in the middle, but for oversimplification's sake, you either love mathematical tasks and want to scrap testing (or are looking for a better type of test), or are more traditional and haven't met a set of 100 homework problems you didn't love to assign.

We are in the process of finishing our NWEA MAP testing, and I couldn't be happier with the results thus far as far as improvement shown. If you aren't familiar with the MAP, I would rate the test as much more strenuous than the Iowa Assessments, and a notch below Smarter Balanced.  I don't necessarily love standardized testing, but my philosophy is that if we are going to test...we might as well do a good job with it. I've written a few MTMS blog postings that explain this a little more, so if interested, click below...

Many teachers I have met and talked with who are interested in making a change in philosophy are afraid to make the change because tests scores might drop. I can understand that this is a real concern to some, but from my experience, the moment I made the switch to mathematics for understanding (which includes tasks), my students saw improved standardized testing results almost immediately.

Aside from the obvious content advantages that mathematical tasks possess, many teachers don't think about the added bonuses that tasks provide. Tasks promote student to student and teacher to student interaction, which leads to mathematical discussions, which in turn leads to mathematical proof. This process ends with long-term mathematical understanding.

Tasks also promote student perseverance. Do you have students who will give up at the drop of hat? Try one of these tasks each week. Students will gradually learn to fight through rough patches. I had a group of teachers visiting my room to see some of these problem-solving task. What were they most impressed with? It wasn't that my students are all Rhodes Scholars, but the fact that for 60 minutes, they never gave up. They kept discussing and overcoming obstacle after obstacle. That type of dedication isn't inherent in most students, it is something that is gained through gradual practice.

What does this have to do with standardized testing? It was very apparent while observing my students during testing that these hidden bonuses from tasks were out in full force. Many of my students worked for 10 to 15 minutes on one question. How may of your students try to finish one of these entire tests in 10 or 15 minutes? Mine used to 10 years ago. This is perseverance. It's hard to stay focused for 54 questions. My students do and that hasn't always been the case. This is perseverance. Take a look at my students' scratch paper (examples from a variety of students below). They write out and prove everything. That is directly linked to what they are asked to prove on these mathematical tasks. Bringing tasks into your classroom make all of these optimal math traits common practice.

Bottom line...if you want to improve your test scores, try implementing these tasks on a regular basis. Your students will become more adept at discussing and explaining, and the level of mathematical tenacity will rise considerably. All of these traits will serve your students a lot better on a standardized tests than trying to cram a week in advance.

Student Task Work Examples

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