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State-Mandated Tests and Mathematics Teacher Education: Reflections of a Teacher Educator

by Jennifer Chauvot, University of Houston (News Bulletin, July/August 2006)

It is commonly argued that if you teach a solid, conceptually grounded mathematics course in which students are actively engaged, then the students should pass state-mandated tests. Indeed, a former syllabus for a mathematics teacher education course that I teach assured prospective and practicing teachers that “armed with your ‘big picture,’ your students will be able to meet and exceed No Child Left Behind accountability measures.” I strongly believe this, but I have come to realize that teachers need more than a belief in good mathematics teaching to be effective in the classroom while also meeting state accountability requirements.

I use several strategies within my courses to prepare students for the challenges that state requirements present. These methods have come from a variety of sources, including discussions with teacher educators, online chats with Cathy Seeley, literature on coping skills, and discussions with prospective and practicing teachers.

My underlying approach is to acknowledge accountability through constructive discourse while continuing to teach about good mathematics teaching. I emphasize health talk (as opposed to stress talk), which enables my students to see the state objectives and assessments as a challenge rather than a threat (Frydenberg, 2004).

Discourse about accountability-related issues can take many forms and can be beneficial for teachers without compromising course objectives. In one of my courses, at least one student always chooses some aspect of accountability as a topic of interest for an assigned paper or presentation. I find often that students’ perspectives on accountability systems broaden as they review the history of testing and investigate arguments for and against state tests. The entire class benefits from these presentations, which then lead into discussions about state accountability measures. This approach helps my students feel better informed about the context within which they are or will be teaching.

In addition, I always include in my courses discussions about NCTM’s Principles and Standards related mathematics education literature, and activities that promote analyses of state-mandated objectives in relation to these documents. Practicing teachers, in particular, appreciate assignments that provide opportunities to examine and analyze the state documents in this way. I often find that fruitful strategies for addressing state objectives emerge during class discussions of the consistencies and inconsistencies among state objectives, research about how children develop mathematical concepts, and recommended instructional practices. For example, my students might discuss how to modify a rich, three-day lesson so that it maintains its effectiveness while fitting into a district- provided 45-minute lesson.

Discussions related to state-mandated tests are easily incorporated into activities that we already use for teaching about assessment practices. Assessment literacy has been described as “becoming informed as to what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate uses of test results … [and] staying apprised of the latest research on how students learn, and how to best assess what they know” (Gulek, 2003, p. 42). Activities centered on released tests are good starting points for discussions that help teachers develop assessment literacy. For example, I challenge my students to identify test items that measure algebraic reasoning, one of our state’s objectives. So far we have never reached 100 percent agreement in this exercise. The differences help students realize that all accountability systems are flawed in some way, and if you use test results to inform future instructional practices, you need to use caution when interpreting test results. They also realize that classroom teachers are the experts in teaching and that as members in that field they will need to stay informed and play a part in helping to improve the assessments.

Another way that teacher educators can use test items to prepare teachers for the challenges of state education requirements, is to ask them to analyze and rewrite test items for conceptual understanding. This pushes them to think about what they will want to know about their students’ mathematics knowledge. Teacher educators can also ask their classes to use released test items to develop problem-solving activities that are explicitly aligned with state objectives. By using test items in these ways, teachers will begin to see ways to employ good mathematics teaching strategies while meeting and exceeding state-mandated objectives.

I still believe that the best way to improve achievement scores on statewide assessments is to practice good mathematics teaching. However, I also believe that teacher education courses must help teachers develop a solid understanding of state objectives and assessments as well as strategies for meeting the challenges that these accountability measures present.

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