What exactly do you mean, MY students?!


High stakes standardized testing, how we all dread those words.  Most of our students aren’t overly fond of them either, no matter what incentives or snacks you throw at them, it is a time where they are evaluated on what they know in conditions that are so unlike their classroom it’s laughable to think that we attempt to measure student knowledge in this manner.

Sitting on committees of these tests and seeing proposed test questions and data from piloted questions is an interesting experience.  If you haven’t had the opportunity to do so, please do- your state and testing company needs to hear your input on what students are exposed to.  These tests mold students’ personalities over the years, it tells students if they are smart, or dumb, and it even tells them specifically what areas they fail in.  I realize I am being overly dramatic and negative right now, but I want that to sink in for those of you reading this.  No matter what we tell them about those scores, no matter how positive anyone is about testing, constant reminders of shortcomings and failures build up.

Most state education websites have a place for you to sign up for these advisory committees, and I would strongly suggest participating in at least one during your teaching career.  One reason I suggest this is: you get a great idea of beliefs of teachers, testing officials, your department of education, and how students are viewed at these meetings.  Most of that stuff is not pretty, at all as long as you don’t have your rose colored glasses on (like I did the first time I attended one).  I have been on three of these so far, and for some reason they keep calling me back- which is good for the students I work with because they have no voice at these meetings and are in no way represented or considered if I don’t.

This is where the problem happens.  For these committees, there are typically a small number of teachers representing different demographics of our state.  I represent a small school (less than 350 students) and teach a large number of Native American students.  Typically I find that other than small school connections, the other teachers really have no idea how my students approach or think about tests or test items.


When we look at data, we get the problem, the answers, data about how students performed on that pilot problem, and rationale about why the answers were chosen for the problem (on multiple choice questions).  The biggest data they look at is a value that indicates how difficult a problem is. They also have an indicator on how “relevant” that difficulty score is- meaning is it just guessing or not.  The problem I have is that many of the other teachers in the group were fine with a lot of these questions, but I was not… here’s why.

  1. Many of the teachers I worked with were from privileged schools: middle to upper class white schools OR charter schools where enrollment is screened.  Coming from a background of teaching students of poverty or withing a juvenile justice center, viewpoints on students norms are vastly different.
  2. Many of the questions they considered “hard” or “cognitively difficult” were word problems.  This becomes a test question on a student’s language skills, not math skills or mathematical thinking.  When I stripped all of the language barriers out of these problems, they were not mathematically challenging to solve and I would estimate 80% of my students could easily find the correct solution.  So my question every time was: is there a better way we could ask this question?

I questioned many of these pilot questions for our testing.  They were not especially challenging math problems for students to contemplate; they were problems testing a student’s vocabulary skills, what background knowledge they had compared to the writer’s, and their ability to recognize what facts they needed for the problem and what they didn’t. 

That last statement I do feel is important, students need to be able to determine what they need for a problem and what is irrelevant.  That is a very crucial part of mathematical thinking and problem solving.  The problem I have is when it is shrouded in context that is not familiar or attainable for students.  There was never a time that all students lived in pleasantville, yet those contexts have been are are used for word problems that “relate to all students.”  This thinking needs to stop.  Many of my students don’t have the privilege of their own space to call home, a bed or even a meal to look forward to.  They can’t relate to problems based in context that is a fantasy world for them.


We, as a math community, need to figure out a way to present mathematically challenging problems to students without providing a language or reading barrier, because that is what we ultimately end up measuring- not their mathematical ability.  I kept getting the the statement thrown at me, “Well Bryan, how many of your students would actually see this problem?”  MY students?  Are you kidding?  They are OUR students, our schools, our communities, our country, our world.  We need to change our thinking about what experiences our students have, how we present problems, and what language we use.


They are my kids, and I need to stand up for them so they have the same opportunity to demonstrate their mathematical mastery as any other student that is taught in our country.


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