Utah’s math problem . . . and Finland’s?

A blog reader sent me an email expressing concern about his (Utah) school’s new policy of compulsory tracking for math and science students who fail to pass the CRT exam. I thought his comments were  worth sharing with the class:

I cannot see the logic in sending a kid on to the next level of Math until he/she has demonstrated proficiency at the current level.  I think we are of the same mind there.  Remediation classes are a step in the right direction there.  The assumption that is being made, and it is a horribly bad one, is that the Math CRTs are an accurate test of that proficiency.  The content of the test don’t even align with the new standards!  Even when they did, they were a poor measure.  In the end, a student who fails the Math CRT (for any reason) in the 9th grade moves on to High School and is placed in the “Math for dumb kids” class (problem enough, but still the next level of Math, it’s remediation in name only).  Then, he/she gets a year’s worth of “teaching to the test” and falls that much further behind the group.  Even if good things happen, the next CRT is passed, and he/she returns to “regular Math” class, they won’t have the preparation they need for that 3rd year of Math and the cycle will repeat.  Those who fail that second year will probably fall victim to stereotype and adopt the attitude that they can’t do Math.
Science, on the other hand, is it’s own little disaster in the making.  Let’s say a student takes Biology in the 9th grade and fails the CRT.  That student will not be allowed to take Physics or Chemistry.  Let’s just suspend discussion on weak Science standards and terrible CRTs.  How does performance in Biology provide any kind of meaningful measure towards understanding the students abilities in Physics or Chemistry?  Their Math scores would be a better indicator, but we’re not even looking at that.  Anyway, that student is forced down a different track and their chances at getting into and succeeding in college just got really slim.
The worst scenario goes like this:
A group of students register for Physics, but aren’t as prepared in Math or whatever as they need to be.  They struggle.  Some rise to the challenge; others don’t.  Classes are large, teachers do what they can, but if the students aren’t seeking help outside of class they’re going to blow the CRT.  Knowing this, the administration asks the teachers to evaluate their students and transfer any of them who could hurt the schools average out of the class into a non-CRT course.
Let’s see, you’re going to give me a large class AND the opportunity to remove the more challenging students to teach.  Tell me, are the interests of the students going to be protected as they should, or has the invisible shield of advocacy that we take for granted been destroyed?
I read this email right after I read an article from Brookings Institute scholar Tom Loveless. In “International Tests are not all the Same,” Loveless points out that Finland’s much touted educational system produces much higher scores on one set of math tests than another.
Finland is a great country and makes a wonderful travel destination. It also has fine schools. But its reputation in education is a bit overblown, based primarily on high PISA scores and an aggressive educational tourism industry. Like New Zealand, Finland also has a math curriculum compatible with PISA.  In 2011, Finland participated in TIMSS for the first time since 1999. Finland’s 2011 math scores are statistically indistinguishable from the U.S. at both 4th and 8th grades. While U.S. scores have improved since 1999, Finland’s have declined (both changes are statistically significant). TIMSS is normally given to 8th graders, but to help monitor progress, Finland gave TIMSS to a random sample of 7th graders in both 1999 and 2011. Those scores fell from 520 to 482, a huge decline (see Exhibit 1.6 in the TIMSS International Report).
Read the article for more detail about the two tests, but basically, the PISA test focuses more heavily on applied problem-solving, while the TIMSS test includes more traditional computational questions. Lurking beneath this difference is a huge controversy that has roiled math education for the past several decades. It’s hard to quarrel with a “problem-solving” approach . . . except that there’s substantial evidence that a heavy focus on the process of math reasoning produces students who can’t actually work math problems. My main point here – and my correspondent’s point as well – is that tests both reflect and drive pedagogy. If we are going to embrace test-based tracking, we need to be very, very sure that we’re giving the right tests.

3 comments

  1. Howard Beale

    Most CRT tests are like bubble tests. They are only after the answer and not the process. The worst math test is the ACT. I got 33 on the math test but was a B/C student in high school math. I had the gift to add, subtract and multiply numbers in my head extremely well but I didn’t understand the processes of solving deeper equations. Since the test provided four answers I could use the answers and put them in the equation and get the answer. But if I had to find the answer from the equation or show my work, I was at a lost. As I went through higher math I really struggled because after a while figuring out the answer becomes too hard. So unless we are using higher level CRT tests that aren’t just computerized versions of bubble tests those students like me might get a good score but really not know math at that high level. Others may know some or part of the process but since they didn’t get the answer correct, their score is docked and no credit for the process is given.

    So it’s not just what is tested but how it is tested and with math I would think the processes are more important. It often leads to the accidental discoveries that the great mathematicians and scientists reach.

    I hate these end-of-level tests because for the most part, in whatever subject, they only use 1-2 different modalities for evaluation and thus can only test a certain block of lower-level knowledge. Since better tests take money, for construction and proper evaluation, this does not occur. And now almost a whole generation has been “taught the test” of the lowest level of skills. Imagination and creativity in teaching and learning is stifled.

    It was interesting to read this blog. While I agree with the logic of the gentleman’s arguments, his whole premise is off in the sense I don’t think schools are as draconian as he sees things. The high school in our area would let students take chemistry if they failed biology and visa versa. There is tracking in math but again not to the degree he states. I agree that teachers are trying hard to do teach but in Utah we are starting to see the consequences of high classes. There is a difference between 20 and 30 students and certainly there is a difference between 30 and 40-45 students which many of our secondary math teachers are facing. For anyone but the highly skilled and experienced teacher, managing the classroom becomes the big issue and teaching and learning suffers. Also, individual help is limited. Also, teachers do need to explore different modalities of teaching and use technology better. I think flipping the classroom has merit (if the technology exists for teachers and students alike). I found with my own daughter those Kahn lessons very helpful.

  2. Yak_Herder

    @Howard,

    I believe you are correct. The draconian measures that were described do not seem to be the norm. They ARE, however, the new policy in at least one of the largest high school’s in Utah (Bingham High).

    We should be asking ourselves this: Now that CRT’s are published and schools are graded and effectively “ranked” by this very narrow measure, is it only a matter of time before other high schools adopt similar draconian policies?

  3. oldteacher

    When I taught here in Utah three years ago, the CRT results were not used for anything. The results were given to the schools after the new year started so, clearly, not being used for anything, not for placement, not for remediation, not for anything. Meaning…they are all for show. Some teachers of math really try to do the right thing, allow redo’s re testing…..but kids don’t redo work, don’t re test and all the parents want is “feel good grades”…..They will freely admit that their kids can’t do math but scream and shout about homework, working through frustration, trying hard….and blame the teachers or the school for their child’s low grades. In Finland and Singapore…the parents realize that math is hard work, get tutors, have homework hours, help their kids or get them help…..make them stay after school (where the teacher works with them for free) and do not make excuses. They realize that math, for some is really hard…. and ask their kids to put in the time. The same parents who drag their kids to soccer practice, wait hours after school for football or basketball practice…have NO such investment in their child’s education. Our system cannot work until people realize that school is like any other “sport”….it takes hours of hard work to be successful. And, Utah is a “right to fire” state…. so don’t say that we can’t fire bad teachers….Utah can fire you if they don’t like the color of your car….or any other capricious reason.

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