Many schools across the state have transitioned the focus of their mathematics instruction to preparation for the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT). I do not fault schools for focusing on FCAT given the ramifications of test scores on public perception and teachers’ evaluations (see Senate Bill 736). I do, however, question the quality of the assessments that are being used to evaluate understanding of mathematics at the elementary school level.
These concerns originate from my experience as a mathematics educator as well as an assessment specialist for Educational Testing Service, where I worked on the development of the SAT, GRE, AP Statistics and other exams. My concerns are intensified by two primary factors: a change in the culture of our schools and the influence these assessments have on what my children believe it means to do mathematics.
Teachers and administrators do not object to having student achievement measured. A misalignment between what FCAT measures and what is valued from an educational perspective creates a dysfunctional culture with the dilemma of “teaching for understanding” versus “teaching to the test.” If teachers are pressured to teach to a test that is not aligned with the overall goal of mathematics instruction, how does that affect what takes place in most classrooms? Proponents of FCAT would argue that schools and teachers should not “teach to the test,” but the nature of the questions says otherwise.
I will use three examples from the FCAT 2.0 Mathematics Sample Questions to highlight some of my concerns. These can be retrieved from the Florida Department of Education Website.
The following item is one of the sample questions for third-grade mathematics:
For a moment ignore the options. This seems like a simple question. Chris gave 2 beach balls to 8 friends at a party, so there are 16 beach balls. Most students would solve this question by multiplying 8 x 2 to get 16. Now, consider the options. These options do not make logical sense given the context of the problem. The options make the problem more difficult for the wrong reason. Students who are able to dissect the problem to determine the answer of 16 must then change the way they solved the problem to match one of the available options. Analysis of all FCAT sample questions available revealed that about 20% of questions ask students to match an equation to a problem context. This method of assessing mathematics discourages creative problem solving and forces students to think about problems in the same manner as the person who created the test. One could argue that test-taking skills like this are important to develop, but I argue that this is not mathematics.
Consider the following fourth-grade sample item:
Carefully consider the way the table is presented. Following the pattern in the right-hand column shows that we are adding 6 each time. That is a valuable observation in students beginning to recognize patterns and structure in mathematics. If we add 6 to the last value we are provided in the right-hand column, we get 30 and would select option C. However, there was a trick! The numbers in the left-hand column stopped increasing by 2 and students are asked to find the value for 9 notebooks. Not only is changing the sequencing bad practice in statistics, the question is intentionally trying to trick kids into picking the wrong option. If the purpose is not to trick, then what is the purpose of asking the question this way?
Please consider one more sample item from fifth-grade:
This problem involves multiple steps. Students may successfully navigate the mathematics in the problem but end up getting the wrong answer by missing the “and back again last year?” part of the question. Students who successfully do the mathematics this way will select the first option. What about students who have never been on a journey and don’t understand what “round-trip” means? One could argue that they should just read the question carefully, but consider that argument. Is it then still a test of mathematics?
I am writing this article to call upon the public to reconsider what we value in education. I would like more careful attention paid to what we are assessing, but it is equally important for everyone to realize that we are using assessments that do not reflect what is valued.
Teachers are amazing and handle so much chaos in such an organized and creative manner. Education, however, is the one field many (e.g., parents, community members, and politicians) think they are experts at because they were once a student. Being a student is very different from being responsible for the education of every child that steps foot into the classroom. As a society, we have done quite a bit to de-value and take the professionalism out of being a classroom teacher. Anyone who believes being a classroom teacher is an easy job because of June, July, and August should spend one week, let alone one hour, being held responsible for the education of all students in a class.
Imagine how you would feel being evaluated in your profession the same way teachers are evaluated. Imagine the results of an assessment that may or may not measure what should be valued being made public to your stakeholders. Imagine the scrutiny we subject our teachers to … and then imagine receiving the same salary as a teacher. Our teachers do what they do because they love our children and want the best for them. Within the current system, I understand why parents care about FCAT performance. The current perception is FCAT provides an equitable way to assess whether or not students understand mathematics. If you truly want your child to get the best education possible, then perhaps we should shift our focus and reconsider what we value. I value the tremendous dedication of the teachers that work with my children each and every day.
If this article moves you, I would like to ask you to do two things. First, contact Commissioner Pam Stewart at the Florida Department of Education and Governor Rick Scott to emphasize that we need to ensure we have quality assessments that evaluate the right things in order to ensure children receive the education they deserve. You have the right to question the decision Commissioner Stewart just announced that American Institutes for Research will develop the next round of assessments for the state of Florida. What assessment and learning experts from our universities were involved in this $220 million decision? What evidence is there to suggest that the investment of state dollars will not result in assessments that continue to measure the wrong things?
Second, and most importantly, please thank teachers for all they do because the system does not make it easy for them to succeed. It’s time we change how we evaluate education.
Tim Jacobbe, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Mathematics & Statistics Education;
Mathematics & Statistics Education Program Coordinator; AND
Principal Investigator, LOCUS Project
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