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Saturday, June 11, 2011

I Can't Do Both

This comment got way out of hand, and Dave's question really gets to the heart of the matter. I feel like I've said all this before, but it bears repeating, in case any non-educator policymakers are actually listening and actually give a crap.

David Cox said: 
"The question, as I see it, is this: Can we do both? Can we teach students math—real, interesting, thought provoking, man-this-stuff-is-cool, math—and still have them show growth on whatever assessment is put in front of them?"
That's an awesome question, Dave. There are three problems with our current state exams in NY anyway that complicate the issue. 

#1 There is way too much content tested for a course that is supposed to be done in one year. I think most of us would agree that authentic learning takes time, but if you take the time to do it right, you can only cover maybe 2/3 of the stuff tested. We have to make the choice of exposing students to all the content by frog-marching them through it, or teaching it in a way they really learn it and conceding there will be stuff on the test they've never seen before.

#2 Many of the questions strictly test knowledge of notation and vocabulary. A kid could know the math inside and out but still miss these.

#3 Many of the questions have a gotcha nature that are clearly not intended to assess understanding. For example, this week one of my students couldn't understand why she picked the wrong answer on a multiple choice trig question - she had done everything right, but her calculator was in radian mode instead of degree mode. Those weasels had made the radian-mode answer one of the distractors, AND, this wrong answer was reasonable in the context of the question.

These are my frustrations around NY exams that make me feel like I can't both teach for understanding and teach such that the exams show progress. It remains to be seen how the common core assessments address these issues. 


  1. Yer darn tooting.

    I'm convinced that the people who write the Algebra 2 Regents have either taught for an insignificant amount of time, or that they are just people who dislike kids. I understand the need for a test that separates the wheat from the chaff. But.

    A problem that I see is that if you sit a great student down, unprepared, for a Regents math exam, they would do relatively poorly. They haven't learned all the tricks, ins, and outs of the exam.
    They don't know how to show their work in a way that the Regents board will give full credit.
    They don't know how to avoid the bear traps that the regents exam sets.

    That student would struggle.

  2. They are breaking their arms down here patting themselves on the back about how much improved the students are in math.

    They won't tell us the cut scores.

    I KNOW THESE KIDS. The only way they got the scores they did is 1) guessing or 2) a very very low cut score or 3) both.

  3. @ Dan - It was generous of you toward the Regents board to concede a need for a test that separates the wheat from the chaff. @ Regents board (and anyone else who wants to talk about "wheat" and "chaff" to refer to something other than grain), in case that is what you're going for, I summarily reject both that there is any such need and the underlying assumption behind it. You are telling us to educate all children, and we want to educate all children. Who is the mf'ing chaff??

    @ Kate - Yeah, word, the Regents are basically the worst tests ever. Thanks for the distillation of why. But, @ David - I think the tension between good teaching and exam pressure is more fundamental than the sh*t that makes the Regents particularly bad. I have been working as a coach, working at 2 very different schools in these last 2 years, with very different professional cultures. The consistent lesson of this experience has been: heavy exam pressure suppresses serious conversation about pedagogy. I believe wholeheartedly that in the long run, if everybody just concentrated on pedgagogy, eventually the performance on standardized tests (maybe even ones as bad as the regents) would improve. So, in principal, it's possible to aim for both goals (serious math teaching + good test results). But my experience of the practice has been that feeling under the gun about test results makes serious conversations about math teaching (not just along the axes of "interesting", "thought provoking", "man-this-stuff-is-cool" but also along the axes of "coherent", "well-articulated-across-grades", "requiring students to do any thinking at all", and many more) harder to have.

    It's one of the things I most appreciate about The Wire: the systematic exposition of how an intense results / accountability orientation, especially numerical, in any institutional context (policing, education, city politics, journalism) actively suppresses people's ability to do the job.

  4. Just want to give a hearty 'hear, hear' to benblumsmith. Jo Boaler's work, and the Put Thinking to the Test crowd justify good teaching even in a testing culture. Heck Finland does, too. It just is so much harder because it's counter-intuitive in the way that Kate points out here.

    My 6th grade daughter took the ACT today. (For a weird program requirement...) The English she could do because it was about doing. The Reading she could do because it was about doing. The math she couldn't at all beyond the computation, and her comment on the science was "you had to actually know stuff." How amazing would it be if the math was on problem solving, representing, and reasoning instead of outmoded algorithms?

  5. I agree with you totally. Here in Canada we have the same problem. If we do not teach the entire curriculum then our students will get crushed on the standardized exam. Also, our universities use the the results of the standardized exams as part of the acceptance criteria to obtwin entrance.

    We are held ransom by these exams yet we know there is a much better way to educate our students.

    Wish I could make the exams go away.

  6. I don't know, Kate. Call me an optimist, but I think both can be done.

    Caveat: I have never taught in NY, nor do I know anything more about the Regents exams than what you've described here.

    Lots of folks (Doug Reeves comes to mind) have written about the use of "power standards" (pick your edu-buzzword) to pair down the state-mandated curriculum into bigger ideas that could be taught in a way that meaningfully engages students as you're describing. I sense your frustration around these ideas and I'm guessing it's not due to lack of effort. You wouldn't find the time to blog and tweet about your frustrations and success stories if you just - didn't - care. You do. So, what can we do about it? Rick DuFour and colleagues call this the "tyranny of or" (

    and suggests moving to the "genius of and." Plenty of bright minds read this blog: any ideas what this might look like?

  7. @Matt, I want to be an optimist, too, and I think it's apparent to you and everyone else paying attention that thoughtful teachers are doing the best they can. The problem of overwhelming-breadth, mile-wide-inch-deep curricula, though, is really an untenable situation.

    I think if you showed our Algebra 2/Trig curriculum to one of your teachers in Iowa, and said yes really they are supposed to do that in one year, they would laugh their asses off. We already have power standards - 104 of them - that we are supposed to do in one year. You guys have the same curriculum there, measured by the ACT as I understand it, but its spread over two years or at least 1.5 years through Algebra 2 and Precalculus.

    Whining about bad tests in this case isn't just whining. The curriculum/tests are really that irredeemable.

  8. @Ben
    What I meant by separating the "wheat from the chaff" is that the state wants to create a specific height of hurdle that they eventually want all kids to get over. I don't see a problem with that logic.
    But the state's execution of this idea is the problem. There shouldn't be a sliding scale that essentially changing the height of the hurdle at their whim. There shouldn't be a curve that they set per exam to make sure that there are x% of students who pass (and hence 100-x% of students who fail). That is a bastardization of the idea that all kids can learn math.
    We SHOULD see regents grades climb upward as schools do a better job of educating their students.
    My use of the wheat metaphor was misplaced, and for that I'm sorry.
    I don't apologize for supporting rigorous math (don't take that as my support of the regents), and expecting more out of schools than we are currently getting.

  9. I'm in agreement here with a lot of what is being said about the Regents exams and current curriculum.

    The Integrated Algebra and Algebra2/Trig curricula are currently a mess and the exams are even worse. I currently teach Algebra and PreCalc. My PreCalc kids were horrid this year after coming through the new curriculum. They retained little to nothing, yet many of them did well on the exam. (I haven't taught it personally, but I kind of like the geometry curriculum)

    Our district recently brought in someone from BOCES to talk about the switch common core. She told us that the word from the state was that they were not going to significantly alter the current high school courses. Honestly the most telling aspect of the presentation was when she let us know that the state had put out a request for bids to the textbook companies to write the exam. Until we have a group of people who are of the correct mindset overseeing the exam we will never have a good system.

  10. I understand fully. In GA, we have went to integrated curriculum where they want us to teach authentic performance tasks. They have written one for each unit.

    However, the EOCT is currently done old school! 60 questions multiple choice. No short-answer or open-response.

    So why do you expect me to get deep into these tasks if the testing method hasn't changed???

  11. I see two problems:
    (1) The standardized test (Regents in this case?) doesn't test for the ability to do "real" math (i.e. applied problem solving).
    (2) I'm not convinced that all math teachers are appropriately trained to teach "real" math.

    (1) is fairly easy to solve (logistically) by getting experienced math teachers to write the tests/curricula/standards, but runs into political issues of school boards not containing educators, lobbying by textbook publishers, etc. Even if it does get resolved, it brings up issue (2), for which the only real solution would be more/better teacher training and more/better incentives for teachers (e.g. competitive salaries/benefits/job security).

    It's not clear to me that there is a quick and easy solution to the suite of problems, but steady progress could be made on both fronts IF politicians were willing to agree on a long-term plan that would sacrifice meaningless short-term indicators (i.e. "in the last year, we improved education X amount") in order to make lasting changes. Anyone who thinks education reform can be done quickly does not have a solid grasp on reality. (but that has never been a highly desirable characteristic of politicians...)

  12. I'm commenting late in the game but what bothers is the politics paint a picture that teacher's aren't willing to have their students assessed or aren't doing their job.

    If they would let actual, experienced math teachers create a reasonable test, no teachers would have a problem in doing it. It's not that we are lazy or hiding the fact that we aren't doing our jobs, it's that the system has made it impossible to show that we are doing our jobs.

    I think we could all agree for a need for accountability and assessment. We're not saying the system isn't needed, just that it is broken, and maybe we could help fix it.


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