Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Smarter Balanced is Coming, What Am I Going To Do?

The new Maine Educational Assessments are coming, as designed by The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, and they are creating a fair amount of anxiety.   It is my hope to ease that anxiety with this post!

Here are some important things to consider when looking ahead to these tests.

  • This is the first time ANY classroom in Maine has officially taken these tests (minus the folks that did the trial tests last year), so EVERYONE will be in the same boat.   
  • Let's remember, at the end of the day, it is just a test we are talking about here.  One measure alone will not bring us down, or any school, or any class, or any teacher.  It is a test to see what our students know, and we should milk it for everything it offers.  Lisa reminds us also that this is a baseline year for this assessment, so there is really nowhere to go but up from here. And on that note...
  • The assessment can teach us a lot!  You can go online and take practice tests for grades 3, 4, and 5... I highly recommend this (link is below).  Even if you teach K-2, taking one of these practice tests (they are about 26 questions long) will help to show you what kind of thinking we want to be encouraging in our classrooms.  Likewise, if you teach 3rd grade, taking the 5th grade assessment will give you an excellent idea of what you are currently preparing your students for.   Is it a perfect test?  No.. In fact I did see a few items I would change if it were up to me, but that has been the case with almost every math assessment I ever took, saw, or gave.  
  • The test is hard, but really, tests should be hard.  They are designed with adaptive software that, like the NWEA tests, selects new items based on how the student answered the previous question. Unlike the NWEA, the new MEA/ Smarter Balanced tests include more items that are more difficult to get right by chance.  In other words, in order to get most of the questions right, you really have to know how to do the problem.  For example, instead of having to choose which answer out of five options is correct (a 20% random probability), a student might have to choose more than one possible answer out of five.  In many cases, students have to type their numerical answers rather than click on a choice.
  • Next year, and the year after, your students will do better and better on this assessment.  In the case of the math assessment, the items are designed to allow students to demonstrate understanding of concepts they have learned during the year.  The more we teach for greater understanding year after year, the better prepared our students will be for this assessment.
  • The old methods of "teaching to the test" really won't work in this case.   Many of us used to cram the night before a major exam when we were in college, and many of us have crammed with our students during the weeks before a major assessment.  Oh no, we thought to ourselves, my students don't know operations with fractions!  We'll have to go over that tomorrow!  The most reliable way to teach to these new tests is to teach for greater understanding, all year long.  Give them opportunities to problem solve, to collaborate, to challenge each other's thinking, and to explore and play meaningful games under your supervision.  The new Everyday Math units do a pretty good job of providing those opportunities in each lesson, so that will have a positive impact on our students' performances on assessments in time.

So go ahead and try the practice tests.  Don't let it be intimidating!  Instead of worrying about how many students will struggle, think about what instructional adjustments can be made over time to increase understanding and confidence in your students in the years to come.  Below the link are a few concepts I took note of while taking the practice assessments.  I understand the temptation to want to abandon everything and focus on those concepts expected to appear on the new tests, but I strongly encourage all to think instead about ways to encourage understanding and make the learning experience as rich and as enjoyable as possible (for you and your students).

Smarter Balanced Practice Tests

Grade 3:

The word "unknown" appears many, many times.

The word "equation" appears many, many times (as opposed to "number sentence").

The word "expression" appears also.

The relationship between multiplication and division is emphasized heavily

There are a number of questions where students are asked to place fractions on a number line

Filling in fraction bars to model equivalent fractions

Area and perimeter of multi-sided right-angled figures (for example, a rectangle with a inverted corner)

There was one question about telling time on a traditional clock

"mass" in grams is mentioned in a word problem; students are expected to understand what "mass" is.

One question asked students to make a rhombus that is also a rectangle.

Parentheses appeared in a number of problems, with order of operations used.

Grade 4:

Many basic operations problems are written as word problems... There are many, many of these word problems.

Understanding that angles are properties of rectangles, rhombi, and parallelograms will be helpful

Understanding the relationship between measures of length, such as millimeters and centimeters will be important

Students will benefit greatly from being able to model division with remainders, in other words, they should be able to tell you a story that involves division and remainders.

Understanding the relationship between numerators and denominators is important, i.e., what it means when one is bigger than the other.

Students should be familiar with solving problems that involve fractions as amounts of things

Understanding how to represent decimals as fractions with 10, 100, and 1,000 as denominators is important

Students should know what an equation is (never once did the assessment use the term "number sentence").

Mixed numbers are all over the place; comparing them, adding them, representing them pictorially..

I saw some emphasis on partial products for multiplication.. and lots of checks for understanding relationships between multiplication and division (such as A times B = C can also be expressed as C divided by B = A)

Visual representations/ models of fractions and mixed numbers are frequent

Grade 5:

Exponents!  Especially with a base number of 10..

Word problems with mixed numbers... adding them, subtracting them, multiplying them with like and unlike denominators

Word problems with measurement of mass in kilograms, and using the word "mass"

Construction and deconstruction of mixed numbers and improper fractions

Volume, volume, volume... It shows up in calculations and word problems.  Not just being able to calculate the volume of a rectangular prism, but being able to understand the meaning of volume when it appears in a word problem.

Gallons and cups!

Comparing decimals to the hundred-thousandth place

Area models used frequently for multiplication and division

Plotting points on the coordinate plane!