Education Week - November 12, 2014 - Special Report - S20
EDUCATION WEEK n
November 12, 2014
Making Sense of the Math: The Common Core in Practice > www.edweek.org/go/math-report
Math-Exam Performance Tasks
Ratchet Up Expectations, Anxiety
Concerns aired over difficulty level, bias
By Ross Brenneman
SLIDESHOW: See 4th grade
students tackle sample
performance items, with
narration from researcher
he architects of the Common Core State Standards
for mathematics explicitly aimed to sacrifice
breadth for depth, but that proposition has raised
questions about whether assessments can be developed
to accurately measure the problem-solving
acumen now expected of students.
To address the issue, the state consortia developing common-core-aligned
assessments, the Smarter Balanced Assessment
Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment
of Readiness for College and Careers, have designed complex
performance tasks meant to gauge whether students can
apply their math knowledge and work through multiple standards
simultaneously. Among other things, students will be
required to use diagrams and write explanations for solutions
in narrative form.
With common-core-aligned testing set to begin this school
year, experts are eager to see whether the performance tasks
will live up to high expectations, and perhaps even bring
positive instructional changes.
"Having these really good performance tasks as
targets is great, because then students get to do more
of these problems in class," said Diane J. Briars, the
president of the Reston, Va.-based National Council
of Teachers of Mathematics. "They get to think about
what's the criteria for a good explanation-it really
does support the students' deeper understanding of
Performance tasks have long been in demand by
those disappointed by standardized assessments used in
connection with the No Child Left Behind Act, under which
performance assessment floundered. In a June 2013 report
published by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy
in Education, for example, a group of 20 high-profile scholars
expressed the hope that the consortia tests would offer
meaningful performance items.
"While it is possible to ask students to select an answer to
a mathematical problem that is given in a familiar format
Preparing for Bias
While the tasks are expected to involve "real world" problems,
students' experiences of the world vary widely, and to that end,
the consortia are attempting to control for cultural biases.
Parcc formed working groups of educators to detect bias
in questions during the development stage, and it plans to
analyze the task results afterward to see if one student demographic
did disproportionately better than another.
The performance tasks will require a certain level of reading
proficiency, but Jeff Nellhaus, the chief assessment officer
at Parcc, said that Parcc designs its tasks using principles of
universal design, an approach that aims to make content accessible
to students with diverse learning needs.
Smarter Balanced plans to take a more hands-on, instructordriven
approach. Schools using that assessment will have a
half-hour "classroom activity" section right before the performance
section of the test in which the supervising teacher will
discuss the elements and topic of the task. For example, if a
high-school-level task were about driving, the teacher would
work students through the process of getting a license, which
might be an abstract concept to urban students.
"In the real world, if you were really solving a math problem,
you could go look up anything you wanted, right?" said
Shelbi Cole, the deputy director of mathematics for Smarter
Balanced. "In a secure testing environment, that is just not
possible. So we were trying to reconcile those two things."
The classroom activity also gives educators more of a role in
the test, she added.
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Some educators have expressed concerns that the computerbased
testing platforms will hamper students' ability to show
their work effectively. The consortia admit that cost and other
issues have hindered improvement of the technological aspects.
The bigger question, perhaps, is whether the tasks themselves
will be too hard, being based on math standards that some earlychildhood
experts say are developmentally inappropriate for
young students. The tasks are designed to test multiple standards
simultaneously, which supporters say creates a necessary
complexity that has been missing from standardized tests.
"We've long advocated that assessments need to address the
full range of student proficiency in mathematics, so they need to
assess conceptual understanding, problem-solving, standards for
mathematical practice, as well as procedures," Ms. Briars said.
"And most high-stakes assessment since No Child Left Behind
came in has not done that."
But critics are not so easily convinced that these tasks are the
ones students need.
"What we have seen thus far of these tests does not leave me
inspired," said educator Anthony Cody on his Living in Dialogue
blog. "Quite the opposite. When tests are designed to be 'more rigorous,'
the outcome seems to be to drastically lower the number of
students rated as proficient."
Ms. Cole said that Smarter Balanced has a revision process to
determine whether a question is too hard for a certain grade level,
but said that negative reactions may change as schools acclimate
to the standards. "This is a new concept for most states," she said.
Parcc's Mr. Nellhaus contended that if people have concerns
about whether assessments are too hard, then they should really
be looking at the standards, not the test.
"Unless the standard changes, the test is measuring the
standard," he said. "Unless the standards change, you test
But Mr. Nellhaus made it clear that he expects the performance
tasks to take math assessment to a new level.
"They're the part of the assessment we're most excited
about," he said. "Not all math items come in short little questions.
[This is] what math is all about." n
[such as multiple-choice], this will not demonstrate whether
the student could take a real-world problem and identify
the kind of mathematics needed to solve it," the paper said.
Education Week - November 12, 2014 - Special Report
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