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Standardized Testing has been around for decades. In its original form, it was used to check a student’s progress from year to year. At some point around the 1970s test results were used to find specific areas of a subject where a majority of children were doing poorly. Teachers were encouraged to use activities that would bolster those concepts and produce improvement. The problem with that approach was that these decisions were based on what a previous group of students had misunderstood.
During the last 25 years or so test scores became more important than how we teach and now too often they are used to rate schools and individual teachers. This is the point where standardized testing began to limit what math subjects were taught.
Standardized Testing in Math Eliminates Important Topics
Pressure is on teachers and administrators to show improvement when schools are ranked by standardized test scores. Often a suggestion is made that teachers spend more time reviewing topics that had low test scores. Doing this eliminates time for new topics- an essential skill needed in math instruction.
Instead of being able to accelerate, basic skills are now the main focus and interesting topics like probability, collecting and interpreting data and finding the area of oddly shaped objects are eliminated. In other words the topics that make mathematical thinkers are not learned.
Standardized Testing is based on Traditional Algorithms
Standardized testing keeps many math teachers on a traditional path for instruction. I often encountered this as a math teacher leader. In one situation I presented alternative methods of teaching solving linear equations. We began with hands-on objects, moved to pictorial representation, and concluded with the traditional method of solving a linear equation.
After the demonstration, I asked if there were any questions. The one that always came up was – “Why can't they just learn the traditional algorithm?" The thought never occurred to many that some students could get the correct answer by other routes.
Researching to See if Testing Has Changed in This Century
Before beginning this article, I decided to look at a sample of the PA Keystone Exam for Algebra 1. What I found in the first portion was a series of equations where students are asked to choose the correct answer from four choices. This is no more than a test of how well a student can plug in numbers and find the correct answer. Since the test is not timed it is doable. But how does this help students understand where Algebra is useful in the real world?
The second part of the test wasn’t much better. Students were asked to solve a problem by writing down all of their steps clearly. But what if the person scoring thought a step that was listed wasn’t necessary? Would that lower the student’s score?
Advocating for Real-World Connections to Math Instruction
About a third of the way through my teaching career I was fortunate enough to be admitted to a program that changed how I taught math. It was the first time I saw the connections between math topics as well as how math worked in the real world. I found my students so much more engaged in math and their understanding of topics improved.
Near the end of my career, I had administered a standardized test to my students. At the end of the test, several students asked if I had written one of the long answer questions. I was astonished. Why had they thought that? They said it was easy because they knew exactly how to tackle it. That is the power of teaching math so that students become better thinkers!