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Common Core testing sets math students up for failure

"Will Common-Core Testing Platforms Impede Math Tasks?" is an eye-catching front page headline in Education Week. (Sept 24 issue). You may be familiar with the Common Core, adopted by 45 states including Oregon, and being used to improve public education in math and language arts. They are uniform learning standards imposed on teachers and students in classes nationwide. They are also a boon for publishing companies creating the new and improved learning materials that school districts must purchase with their scarce resources.

"Testing Platforms" refers to the standardized computer testing mandated by the Common Core starting in 2015. The Education Week article reports: "Unlike previous state assessments, those being developed by the two federally funded consortia will include complex, multipart word problems that students will answer on screen ...(some) ... questions will ask them to write answers in narrative form, using a keyboard."

That caught this old math teacher's attention. Common Core will be testing math mastery of elementary and middle school students, with Oregon schools using the new Smarter Balanced tests. The concern is that students with strong math skills, who could demonstrate solutions with calculations and diagrams, will be forced to rely on verbal skills which may be less developed, and on keyboarding skills they have not yet learned.

"It's not like, during the year in classrooms, these kids are solving these problems on the computer," said David Foster, the executive director of the Calif-based Silicon Valley Mathematics Initiative, which has worked with both consortia creating the 2015 assessments. "I think there are some potentially really good questions (on the tests), but when you give kids a great question but all they can use to solve this problem is the keyboard in front of them, you sort of put handcuffs on the kids," Foster told Education Week.

My personal concerns come from 20 years spent teaching algebra and other math subjects to secondary school students in Los Angeles. I taught both regular and honors level courses, often teaching 180 students of diverse socio-economic backgrounds each semester. Most worked diligently to learn the material. My homework assignments and tests were designed to match the material being studied. Students were required to show the math work they used to solve problems, and were awarded partial credit for doing much of it correctly even if the final answer was wrong.

None of this will be done under the new computerized testing methods. Whatever pencil and paper work students do will not be part of their result; only what they enter using a keyboard will count. Students will be frustrated by using unfamiliar testing means, especially knowing these are high stake tests. Teachers will also suffer the consequences if students have difficulties, even though teachers will not have the opportunity to prepare students for the computerized assessment method.

Not only is Common Core a federally sponsored education program, but many states have agreed that teacher evaluations will be linked to students' results on the 2015 tests. That makes accurate results imperative if teachers and students are to be evaluated fairly. It raises serious questions that deserve answers. How will young schoolchildren cope with unfamiliar computerized testing platforms, how much federal funding is being spent to create these assessments, and how meaningful will be the results ?

"Portland schools say no to state rules" is a relevant headline in the Mail Tribune (Oct. 16). That district will opt out of tests for third-grade reading, fifth-grade math and eighth-grade math, "in essence saying the district won't be judged based on student performance on the new Smarter Balanced Test," says the AP story. Several reasons are cited, reflecting worries of districts nationwide. They don't even include concerns about unfamiliar computerized testing methods.

The executive director of the Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education at the University of Chicago, Martin Gartzman, put it succinctly in Education Week:

"The primary tools kids use to solve problems and justify their answers every day in math class and required by the common core aren't available for kids to use during these tests. We're going to get tests that are just going to frustrate people and are really going to underrepresent what students know."

Is it reasonable and fair to test America's schoolchildren in a manner guaranteed to yield inaccurate results ? Results that will be stored permanently in the massive databases that are the other component of the Common Core ? I'm thinking of hundreds of my former math students, kids who knew the material and did well on my pencil and paper exams, being frustrated by this new challenge. If they score poorly, that becomes a permanent record of failure for them, their teachers and their schools. What kind of Common Core is that?

Betty R. Kazmin of Medford taught algebra for 20 years in Los Angeles public and private secondary schools, and served on the board of education in Willard, Ohio.