Why I am worried about PARCC and other Common Core assessments, Part 1

One reason I am worried about common core style assessments is that I don’t really have much confidence in how such assessments will be scored.  With multidimensional questions (and this is a good thing), students will inevitably have some  multiple interpretations.  I recently used this questions from EngageNY (Grade 6 Math Module 1, Topic C, Lesson 19, or thereabouts)

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When I did the problem I came up with two possible answers, and when grading my student’s quizzes, I noticed that they came up with two more.  Now this isn’t a particularly intricate problem with lots of different interpretations, but the question isn’t especially precise.

The answers I expected included 3 mph faster or 1.6 times faster.  Most of my students wrote 9 minutes faster because they just referred to the actual walk to school which is of course the relevant distance.  Other students wrote 4.5 minute per mile faster, not the way we typically think of speed, but sound proportional reasoning nonetheless.

My worry is that the person whose charge is to write the code that is meant to interpret student responses to such questions simply isn’t going to think much about whether students are demonstrating sound proportional reasoning.  The machine will look for the expected answer, and be done.  Our students, teachers and schools will be told their failing, and it simply won’t be the case.

What Makes My Classroom Distinctly Mine

I used to teach at a highly-selective independent school for girls.  You can image that the students were highly motivated (after all, their families were shelling out close to $40k for their education) and also highly capable (otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten in).  I taught, students learned.

I am now about a month into my second year at an affluent but also pretty diverse, suburban public school, and I have been thinking much harder about how to engage and motivate my students.  To a large extent, this question is one of the “essential questions” of MTBoS.  From Dan Meyer’s How Math Must Assess (it’s hard for me to fathom that he wrote that seven years ago), to blog posts like this one from Cheesemonkey, the MTBoS has been reshaping my values as a teacher and causing a wholesale rethinking of how I want my classroom to feel to the students who pass through it everyday.

Firstly, I want my students to know that it matters to me if they get it or not.  That I wouldn’t be teaching how to find the percent of a number (or teaching period)  if it didn’t matter.  I want them to feel it in their bones that it’s important to me that they learn what I endeavor to teach.  I also want them to know that I know that they can learn it, and that it doesn’t matter to me how long it takes them to learn it.  They should understand that the unit, whether it’s the percents unit or the circles unit or the solving equations unit, is just a random unit of measure.  I want them to know this because I think it’s motivating to students.  Most of my students (and we’re talking about sixth graders) actually want to meet my expectations.

Last year, my struggle was how to communicate this.  I think mostly my students thought I was “nice.”  I was a new teacher at the schoo,l and so parents would tell me, other teachers would tell me that students thought I was “nice.”  But I am really not going for “nice.”  I think the problem was that I came across as caring without clarity on what I cared about.

I set out to change this by taking down almost all the posters on my walls that were related to math content.  Goodbye place value system, number line, circles formula posters. It’s not that these aren’t important math concepts, but after a time they just tend to blend in more like wall paper.  They don’t generate must thinking or curiosity.  They are just facts.  In their place, I created a series of quotes (most of which I found on the MTBoS) that share a Dweckian theme (sorry about paywall on this link, but I think it’s the best place to start if you aren’t familiar with her work).  Here’s one example:


You can see them all on here.

(BTW the one facts poster I kept shows the perfect squares 1 to 625, but that’s another blog post).

I also have prominently displayed Mathematical Practices posters created by Sarah Rubin.   As expressed in this kid-firendly language, they are thought provoking even if students don’t really know what they mean at the outset.  I surprise myself at how frequently I refer to them.

Posters aside, the most significant change in my classroom room is that I have started using standards-based grading.  At TMC13 it seemed that ActiveGrade was the most popular software so I explored it this summer and have been using it to provide feedback to students.  However, what I am most pleased about is that the word “reassess” has entered the classroom lexicon.  I think that most students actually believe me when I say I don’t care how long it takes.  Now when I am here after school, students actually show up.  They know what they have to work on, and that I will give them the time to work on it.

Also, I am fortunate that I have a structure built into our schedule where even students who maybe aren’t yet motivated enough (or under scheduled enough) to come after school can get the help they need.  We have two periods a week and staffing to run small group interventions for students who are struggling.  (Students who are not getting interventions are either doing an ELA activity or playing the stock market). I also had this structure last year, but the difference is that now students know what they are working towards.  They know which skills and concepts they need to learn and that eventually, when ready, they will be re-assessed.

Mostly here, I have talked about motivation, but I think engagement is slightly different.  It comes from a genuine interest the math.   I want my students to see the utility and sheer coolness of math.  I want my students to be able use the math we are learning to solve problems of interest them.  Stay tuned for next time…

Organizing Lessons

SInce I am in my forties, I have not yet fully embraced cloud-based file storage, and I am highly wedded to Finder.   Those Chrome books that lack even a basic a file management system just makes me uneasy.  Also I don’t trust search.  I want to be able to navigate to the actual file. I am a throw back, I know, but all this has forced me to develop what I think turns out to be a pretty good system of electronic file management.

Here’s how it works.  Each major unit gets a folder, for example “Fraction Concepts.”  Last year Fraction Concepts was the third unit of the year.  Here is a screen shot of Finder that shows some of the files I used on the fourth day of the unit:


(Sorry this is so small; I can’t figure out how to make this bigger; click it and you should be able to read it.)

Every document that I actually used on that particular day starts with the prefix U3D4 which stands for Unit 3, Day 4.  The first file with nothing following U3D4 is the lesson plan in a Power Point.  The name of the file, “benchmarks” tells me this is a lesson on percent benchmarks.  The next set of files that start with “U3D4 CW” are documents that student did during class.  They might be a game, a worksheet, etc.  I can also tell from the file names that this was a lesson with some differentiation. The CW-A means this is the class work for “apprentice” level students.  CW-P means “practitioner” level class work.  Here are some other codes that I use:

HO – handout (for reference sheets, and the like)

HW – homework

WU – warm up

EX – exit ticket

If I am using links to websites, videos, etc. as part of a lesson, these resources are recorded via a link in the power point lesson plan.

Anything related to Fraction Operations that I didn’t use in a particular lesson but that I want to save goes into a sub folder called Fraction Operations (or other unit name) Resources.  In this way I can distinguish between what I actually used and what I think I might want to use in a workshop time, for remediation, or next year.

This system means that I almost always create a file for even the simplest things.  For example, today I wanted to assess my sixth graders’ familiarity with the traditional long division algorithm, so I printed a 1/2-sheet with just two problem, rather than writing them on the white board.

It also means that I no longer use a binder for lesson plans, handouts or anything else!   In fact if I don’t have something in electronic form, it’s highly unlikely that I will use it in any lesson.

This year I have started using this same numbering system with my students’ binders.  The trackers numbers they write on their papers and on their table of contents mirror my file naming system.  My hope is that my students will look at the codes and know whether a particular piece of paper served as a warm up, class work, or homework.  We’ll see if I can keep it up all year long.


On posting learning objectives …

When I taught in independent schools, no administrator or mentor teacher ever really weighed in on my teaching practice, at least not the specifics.  It would have been odd to receive feedback on something as mechanical as posting the learning objective at the beginning of class.  And yet, in my limited interactions with math teachers in my new public-school district, it seems clear that posting the learning objective on the white board at the beginning of each class is an expectation.

I haven’t actually read any of the research that no doubt exists to support this practice, but I have my doubts.  How exactly does writing “Students will be able to prepare okra” on the board actually motivate students to cook okra, or promote okra achievement? Simply writing the objective doesn’t change the actual lesson, right? Isn’t it the students who are doing the learning?  Shouldn’t they be the ones to tell us what they actually learned?  Instead, I think I might use an exit ticket as a way to assess who is cluing into the bit ideas.  The exit ticket might include two questions:

  • What was the big idea (the main topic) of today’s lesson?
  • What did you learn how to do today?

I do typically show an agenda on the board briefly at the beginning of class, and usually the heading of the agenda might say “Introduction to Okra,” but from my perspective, writing the learning target (SWBAT…) on the board—no matter how Hemingway-esque—is akin to skipping to act three, in the Dan Meyer’s sense of the term.

I want my lesson to unfold for the student.  I want them thinking about what’s important, what they think the main idea is.  I don’t want to spoon-feed them. To me it seems that writing the objective on the board is playing directly to the kid who asks on day one of a new unit, “Is this gonna be on the test?”

Also, after day one of a new unit, they might not realistically be able to do anything that they couldn’t already do before the lesson (by design).  And then you’re left with some really lame teaching objective like:  “Students will be able to notice salient characteristics of okra.” I hope I don’t come across as vainglorious, believing that my lessons are so wonderfully designed that the objectives just unfold magically, but that there objective is just plain icky.

Those pesky meter sticks

Here’s one thing that I made from some Ikea rubber storage containers.  Because they are pink, my daughters banished them a few years ago, and they were just sitting around my house.  I brought them into school, cut the top off one of them, and created a meter stick storage solution.

Setting up my room

This is the first time in my teaching career that I’ll have my own classroom and have been thinking hard about how to organize stuff, use wall space, and arrange desks.

One of the things I have struggled with for a long time is how to create a climate in my room where students who are not making sense of the math feel comfortable stopping me or the class discussion to ask a real question.   This is especially a challenge in my district because there exists a really big segment of families who enroll their children in after school math programs.   (I won’t call them extra-curricular because most of them duplicate what is taught in school, except frequently a year or two in advance.  I digress.  Perhaps this is fodder for another post, but in the meantime see this article in the Boston Globe).  These students are pre-exposed and leave everyone else feeling like they are supposed to know stuff they haven’t been taught.  It has had a serious chilling effect in past classrooms and seems to be even more of an issue in my new district.

Also, a feature of my new district is that I have to grade each child separately on their behavior/effort, apart from their academic performance.   This is something I am not really sure how to approach, but my thought it to their grade connect behaviors that support a healthy classroom culture.

I decided to create some posters in my room that explain the behaviors I would like to see in class that I think will help create that culture.  Here’s the actual text (I’ll add a picture when it’s on the wall in my room).  I called them “Ways To Be.”

  • Fair-Minded:  Even if you undersand a new concept, embrace a certain opinion, or feel strongly about your beliefs, remember that other intelligent, thoughtful, and passionate people won’t necessarily agree with you.
  • Fearless:  Don’t be afraid to ask questions, admit you are confused, or make a reasonable guess.
  • Persistent:  Just because you don’t know the path to a solution from the beginning doesn’t mean you won’t be able to figure it out.
  • Inquisitive:  Makes sense of what you learn.  It’s not enough to learn the steps or memorize the facts.  Ask questions until you undertand the reasoning.
  • Reflective:  When you make a mistake, think about what kind of mistake you made, why you made it, and how to avoid it in the future.
  • Focused:  Set goals, and keep your eyes on the prize.

Much of this is derivative of Ron Ritchhart’s book Intellectual Character.   My own kids (the one I gave birth to) think this is completely lame, and I haven’t quite figured out how to connect this to a grade.  I think if I see evidence or examples of these ways to be (e.g. “I couldn’t do #4 on last nights HW, can we go over it?”) on any given day, students would be a +1 for the day.  If I see behavior that runs counter to theses ways to be (“This is SOOOO easy.”), then they get a -1.  Otherwise, they get a 0 which would be a B. The ways to be would only be one aspect of their behavior/effort grade, but I think of it as more important than late homework, etc.  If I do actually implement this, I will report on how it’s working.