Math Test Prep – It’s That Time of Year Where We Bore Our Students Into Failure

I know when I was teaching in the k-12 classroom, this time of year was always so frustrating as a teacher and even more frustrating and anxiety-ridden for my students. This is the time of year when standardized testing is occurring or about to occur, in the majority of states. This can mean state-tests or national tests such as the AP exams, SAT and ACT. For me, the biggest ‘anxiety inducer’ was the mandatory End-of-Course tests that all my math students were required to take and pass with a 70% or better in order to earn the credits needed to graduate. No pressure there…..

Things have changed a bit as we move into the new era of ESSA, with many states changing the standardized testing requirements, but there is definitely a lot of pressure on students to perform, and on teachers to get their students to achieve at specific levels. This impacts teacher evaluations, school evaluations, etc. I’ve always hated that these ‘one-point-in-time’ tests have such dire impacts on teachers and schools, considering they do not reflect student growth over time or other impacting factors such as absenteeism.

But – regardless, tests are out there, happening now, and causing teachers and students undo stress. I know, for me, part of the frustration was the inordinate amount of time we were ‘required’ to prep students for the test. This included days specifically set aside to practice for the tests instead of teaching, and a ridiculous number of ‘practice tests’ and test taking prep.  Boring, stress-inducing, and really kind of pointless in my opinion. I felt we spent entirely too much time preparing for tests instead of actually teaching our content and letting students continue to learn. It was as if ‘learning’ stopped and the whole school went into ‘test-prep’ mode, and we forgot what school should be about – engaging students in learning and understanding, not preparing them to take a standardized test. My thoughts were these prep times only increased students anxiety about the tests and often, the long, drawn-out, constant test prep led to student burn-out, apathy, and failure. For many students, they got so tired and bored of ‘practicing’ that when the real test(s) came along, they made beautiful designs on their bubble sheets instead of actually focusing on answering the questions. (Yep – that really happens).

What are my suggestions? Keep teaching. And not teaching to the test or for the test, but teaching. Teach new things. Teach applications of things that might be on the test but  NOT through standardized-test questions, but with real questions, real problems, and real applications of the things students should know for the test. Worksheets with multiple choice answers are NOT teaching, or learning, or engaging. Technology with “practice” problems and right/wrong answers is NOT teaching or learning. Do something with the knowledge students should be able to use and do on these tests. Create interesting learning experiences, where students have to problem-solve and apply the knowledge and talk to each other. Example: instead of 20 solve these ‘systems of equations’ problems on a worksheet, provide real-world problems where a systems of equations is needed to find the solution. Where students have to work together to create the equations and come up with the solutions. Where they get to decide the most appropriate method to solve the system. Way more interesting and much more insightful into what students know and can do.

It’s not that you shouldn’t prepare students for tests. It’s that you should do it in a way where students are applying their knowledge and engaged in applications of that knowledge. It’s not about worksheets and test-taking strategies. It’s about understanding and applying the concepts. Tests suck. Don’t feed the anxiety and the boredom and the apathy towards tests by creating rote, mundane, drill-and-kill test prep. Make it about engaging students in applying their knowledge in interesting, relevant ways. There are many resources out there that can provide excellent ‘test prep’ ideas and problems in a much more exciting way than a worksheet with 40 multiple choice problems. (Bleh).

Some fun #math sites with challenging application problems to use for ‘test-prep’:

 

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Engaging in Thanksgiving Data

In honor of Thanksgiving this week, I wanted to do a short post to share some data about Thanksgiving that might be useful for use with your students. I remember doing data-collection activities with my students around the holiday, trying to connect math concepts to real-world things. Here are just a couple of activities I remember doing with my own middle and high school students:

  1. Students brought in their own pumpkins (big, small, etc.) and we measured circumference & diameter (as close as we could get) to determine if the relationship was pi, as we conjectured.
  2. Weighing the pumpkins and measuring height/circumference and trying to determine if you could predict the weight of a pumpkin simply by knowing it’s height & circumference.
  3. Measure the circumference around the middle, then measure the circumference from top to bottom of the pumpkin and see if there is a relationship
  4. Collect classroom data on foods each student eats at Thanksgiving and create a bar graph showing the different foods frequency.
  5. Have students calculate the typical cost of their own families Thanksgiving meal (this requires research on cost of each item, number of servings for their family, etc. – interesting data), and then do a box-and-whisker plot of all the classroom data to compare.
  6. I never did this one, due to the mess, but I had teacher friends who actually weighed the pumpkin, then opened them up and counted the seeds to determine if there was a relationship. Probably best to only do this with a couple pumpkins! Save one for making a conjecture and testing at the end.

There are obviously many ideas and sources of data, but the key for all of this is to get students collecting data, looking for relationships, making conjectures and predictions, and using mathematics.  Calculators are very handy here, especially ones that allow students to record the data in lists and graph the results. You can have some students recording the data on paper, others on the calculator.

In my search for data, I ran across some interesting sites that might be useful to teachers wanting to make some real-world connections on this Thanksgiving holiday. I’ve listed a brief description below and then the link.

  1. This is a great resource showing geographically what people are eating at Thanksgiving.  Interactive, color-coded maps for the major foods served and recipes to go along with these as well!  http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/11/26/us/20091126-search-graphic.html?_r=0
  2. This is a complete lesson with data from a Teaching Children Mathematics article in 2006.  It has some of the activities I described above plus different ones and it has ready-to-use data if you didn’t want to have the pumpkin mess!!  http://schools.cbe.ab.ca/b402/pdfs/math_pumpkins.pdf
  3. The Price of Thanksgiving DataSet from TuvaLabs This is a dataset and activity that can be downloaded in Excel and used with students. If you have never checked out TuvaLabs, do so – its free for teachers and has amazing datasets and lesson activities.
  4. This page lists a bunch of facts about Turkeys that you could use to create some interesting mathematical explorations Turkey Facts
  5. Thanksgiving Statistics – interesting statistics from food to towns named Plymouth.
  6. Thanksgiving by the numbers: Just one of many sites with more statistics about food – includes recipes!

If you do your own searches, you will find a lot of ready-to-use lessons and ideas. The thing to remember is it’s a lot more fun for students if they are the ones collecting the data and making the connections. Communication, mathematical discourse, and application are the key.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!