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.
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.”
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."