New standardized tests seen as way to test student knowledge, not ability to memorize

2014-03-30T06:30:00Z 2015-09-22T07:31:21Z New standardized tests seen as way to test student knowledge, not ability to memorizeJennifer Naylor Gesick Journal staff Rapid City Journal
March 30, 2014 6:30 am  • 

It's a student complaint as old as education itself: how will I ever use these math equations in the real world?

When it comes to addition, subtraction and multiplication, it's obvious why those basic skills are needed. But students taking standardized tests on bubble sheets to solve algebraic or calculus equations may have had a legitimate gripe, since finding the solution to 2(X)-3=Y+2 rarely comes up in the modern workplace.

The new standardized tests that landed in Rapid City schools last week seek to solve that long-standing problem. Rather than ask children to read a question, choose from among a few possible answers and fill in an oval on an answer sheet, the new Smarter Balanced Assessment questions ask students to do more thinking, evaluating, and explaining of why they chose their answer.

And questions are based on more real-world situations, like trying to get the best deal on pizza, or making sure people are being treated fairly when it comes to payment, or determining whether a statement someone makes is true or false given the information at hand.

The new exams are aligned with the controversial Common Core State Standards, which are now in place in South Dakota schools for math and English. Despite legislative attempts this spring to stall or outright block the new standards, the standards were upheld and the first round of testing is taking place.

And while this set of first exams is only a test-run of sorts for the new tests, and results won't be officially counted, it's clear already the new tests are far different than anything parents, and even their young children, have seen before. Not only is the entire process online, but the questions are more in depth and require higher levels of thinking and problem solving.

Math questions require students to do more than just memorize a formula or plug-and-chug numbers. Students must use reasoning skills, be able to communicate their reasoning, have the ability to clearly explain how they arrived at the answer. Backers of the exams believe the tests require a higher level of thought and will push educators to help children think and evaluate more — both skills needed to function in the workplace or in academia.

"I work with a lot of math faculty and they complain that students will memorize the procedures to solve the math problem to pass the test or quiz," Jacqueline King, director of higher education collaboration for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, said in a phone interview Friday.

She added that when those students encounter the same problems years later in their college algebra class, they've forgotten how to solve the problem.

"So there is more focus on depth of conceptual understanding," King said.

The English/Language Arts (ELA) questions are different as well. There is a bigger emphasis in these tests on writing well as a way to assess student critical reading skills. The ELA portion also includes research components and listening passages.

King said the point of the new exams is to address skills students need not only in English class, but also in science class, history class and across the curriculum.

Inquiry-based Math

This so-called inquiry-based instruction type of math has been around long before Common Core State Standards came about.

Rapid City Area Schools have been using inquiry-based math instruction since at least 2009, and in some cases as early as 2002, and it has prepared their students well for the Common Core aligned tests, said Diana Koch, director of curriculum and instruction for the district.

District math coach Erin Lehmann said the method by which children are learning math is revolutionary and exciting because it uses more critical thinking and evaluation rather than memorization.

"They actually get to make sense of math," Lehmann said. "There is trust in the classroom. We have discussions and we talk. [They’re] not just sitting there in rows doing rote memorization. There are conversations, they can push back and they can ask questions. It is empowering students to become confident mathematicians."

The method is based on research that Koch and Lehmann say helps students to conceptualize the math so they learn to understand the “why” and “how” behind math problems. And they are making it fun for kids, Lehmann said.

“Instead of fractions on a worksheet, I have a brownie pan and we work with those,” Lehmann said. “It’s fun and the kids are engaging in it. So when we’re having the kids engage in it and explore and once they get those 'ah-ha' moments, they get to be the owners of all that knowledge. When they know how to get there, how a student gets there, that’s freedom,” Lehmann said.

The Common Core State Standards were written to align with the requirement of entry level college courses, and then worked backward from there, King said.

“One of the things that experts have observed when they compare our math curricula to those of other countries around the world is that we touch on a lot of subjects during the year, but we don’t go very deep,” King said. “Some experts call it an inch deep and mile wide.”

Testing the test

Students in Rapid City and throughout the state began taking the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests Tuesday and will continue some testing through the spring. The consortium is a group of about 20 states that have worked together to create these new tests based on the Common Core State Standards.

Officials describe this field test of the new assessment as a test for the test. The field test scores will not count as a way to measure the school districts or individual student progress.

The field test will also help students be better prepared for the real test next spring, said Lisa Plumb, director of federal grants and assessment for RCAS.

"The most important thing is, students are getting used to the online testing environment," Plumb said.

South Dakota, Montana, California, Connecticut and Idaho are the few states to field test all or most of their students in math and English/language arts.

Other states are taking samples of students and giving them the new test while other students are taking the old standardized test.

The old standardized tests, the Dakota STEP test, is still being administered this year for science. 

South Dakota Secretary of Education Melody Schopp said she did not see the point in giving students here an old, out-dated test for math and English, and saw an opportunity for the state to be part of something important.

"We decided it would be a really good opportunity for every student to take the new assessment and make sure everyone has that foundation," Schopp said.

She said the results of the field tests while not counted for or against the students or districts will be critical in the next step of the development of the assessment — determining proficiency standards.

In the fall, teachers and other educators will gather and work on what scores basically show that a student is learning and proficient in the material.

"It's a real opportunity for South Dakota to lead that and be a part of that," Schopp said.

Koch said the first week of testing the new tests seems to be going well without many technical problems or students having major problems with the online format.

Principal Wayne Rosby of Valley View Elementary in Rapid City said teachers have been working with students on the SBAC practice tests that have been available online for about a year. But he said it remains a learning process for everyone, especially the all-online component.

“This is a total new system, so it’s been a big learning curve for us,” Rosby said last week. “I think our teachers are embracing it. It makes complete sense to me to move towards technology; I mean, look at our world today.”

Opting out

But the test is not without controversy. Since it is aligned to the Common Core State Standards, it is receiving a lot of political resistance from those opposed to Common Core. Opponents of Common Core made several arguments: that it is federally driven and not local; that too much student data will be released; and that it is unproven.

Critics of Common Core and the test are encouraging more parents to refuse to let their children take the test.

Parents do have the ability to keep their child from taking the test, and there are procedures for opting out, Plumb said.

So far, the number of students opting out of the test has not been overwhelming, and they have been managing the situation on a case-by-case basis, she said.

"There are really very few opting out," Plumb said. "We have received some letters from parents and (Superintendent Tim) Mitchell has done a very nice job of responding to each parent."

She said Mitchell has sent each parent a personal letter to answer their questions and explain why the students are taking the tests.

If the parent ultimately chooses to opt-out, the schools are providing a place for them to go while the other students are testing so they do not have to miss school.

Plumb said as a district they are held accountable for participation and they need a 95-percent participation rate to validate results.

There is no imminent threat of funding loss, however, if they do not reach that threshold. A repeatedly low participation rate would affect the way the district is scored in some reports.

Plumb said even though there is resistance politically, and what she refers to as some misunderstanding of what Common Core is all about, the transition so far has been positive and is an unprecedented move for public education.

"It really is exciting," Plumb said. "And the fact that communities are having wonderful conversations about their children’s education, it’s very exciting."

Contact Jennifer Naylor Gesick at 394-8415 or

Copyright 2015 Rapid City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(7) Comments

  1. Rashida
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    Rashida - April 12, 2014 6:34 am
    The opportunity to buy essay. It’s the best platform that gives you the chance to buy essays that are of profound quality by the custom essay writing service which help us a lot for any kind of writing services.
  2. Barrett Wendt
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    Barrett Wendt - March 31, 2014 4:30 am
    I am a parent of a 9 year old and so far I am not impressed with Common Core. I don't mind that alternative teaching methods are being used, some kids learn differently. However when it take a full page to show your work on a simple math problem it's sort of ridiculous.

    My wife and I are now teaching our son traditional math skills, which he is learning very well. He is now able to complete timed tests in the allotted time frame and can effectively show his work.

    I will look at my great grandfather as an example. He was part of the greatest generation and fought in WWII. He is 92 years old this year and is still able to calculate math problems in his head as fast as anyone I know. He certainly learned traditional math skills in school without issue. Traditional math works and memorization works and we should not abandon this for an unproven method.
  3. Since1978
    Report Abuse
    Since1978 - March 30, 2014 8:37 pm
    Teachers want more pay? Then earn it!
    Plugging the children into the laptop doesn't require a 4 year degree.
  4. Math Teacher
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    Math Teacher - March 30, 2014 5:41 pm
    If a person does not know how to solve a problem then they cannot solve it, period. Traditional math teaches how to solve problems and emphasizes skills first problem solving second, not frustrate students to the point that they give up like inquiry method does. Traditional math emphasizes practice. Inquiry method says no practice, problems first, learn basic math facts second what you learn on your own is yours. Adults can reason and solve problems, because they already have developed the skills. This type of math is what adults do and it appeals to them because they have the skills. It has to be skills first and solve problems second.
  5. MommaV
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    MommaV - March 30, 2014 3:18 pm
    I am also a math teacher and the previous post has some inaccuracies in in. Inquiry math wants the students to not only learn why the math they are doing works, but to also become efficient at solving problems. Students are not taught the facts or formulas because they discover them for themselves which gives them an ownership of the math. After they have discovered them, they can use their formula to apply it in many diverse situations. I am confused by people who would not want their children/students to be problem solvers and critical thinkers and instead want them to be only able to regurgitate what their teacher told them with no understanding of the concepts.
    I am also a parent with elementary and middle school aged children and I can say with certainty that my children have learned amazing reasoning skills with this "new math" and I would not want them taught any other way.
  6. Math Teacher
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    Math Teacher - March 30, 2014 12:05 pm
    As a MS and HS Math teacher, who uses traditional and proven methods and whose students constantly improved, I rarely had students ask me "When are we ever going to use this in life?" or "When are we ever going to need this in life?" I responded, the question should be, "Will you be able to use this in life when you need it." A better question is, "What job can you find where you do not use math?" More specifically, "what job can you find where you will not use Algebra (finding the unknown answer) or use Order of Operations, (knowing when to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, etc.) In the new math, inquiry method, reform math, common core/smarter balance method, fuzzy math, (it is all basically the same thing) basic math facts or formulas are not to be taught and learned but are to be "discovered." Students are not taught methods of solving problems but are to come up with their own ways. I know because I have been sent to several of the workshops. Can you imagine students today rediscovering the Pythagorean Theorem that took mathematicians hundreds of years to discover or principles of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, Calculus, statistics, etc.? Students will be expected to discover these principles in a few minutes, hours or days. Should we throw out hundreds of years of using proven practices for something that hasn't been proven?
  7. Math Teacher
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    Math Teacher - March 30, 2014 9:33 am
    As a Math teacher in MS and HS,using traditional and proven methods of teaching with students constantly improving, I rarely got the question of "When are we ever going to use this in life?" or "When will I ever need this in life?" Because, I would respond to the student, that should not be the question, but the question should be, "Will I be able to use this in life when I need? And even a better question, what job can you find that will not use math somehow someway? More specifically, what jobs out there will not be using Algebra (learning to solve for the unknown answer) or Order of Operations (knowing when to Multiply, Divide, Add and Subtract, etc.) The inquiry method, reform method, common core, smarter balance method (they are basically the same thing) do not encourage students to learn and memorize basic math facts, but want the students to discover the answers. I know because I have been to their workshops. A teacher does not teach how to get the right answers but encourages students to discover their own methods. The new math mocks traditional and proven methods of 500 years or more of learning.
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