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Integrated Mathematics and High-Stakes Standardized Testing—They Do Go Together!

by Gaby McMillian
January 2001

The accountability system in Texas and its emphasis on standardized testing is becoming, for better or worse, a model for many schools around the nation. This essay relates the experience of two large, urban high schools, Harlandale High School in San Antonio and Bowie High School in El Paso, that have succeeded in raising scores and passing rates on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) and Algebra 1 End-Of-Course (EOC) exam by implementing SIMMS Integrated Mathematics, a Modeling Approach Using Technology (SIMMS IM) (Montana Council of Teachers of Mathematics 1996). Both schools are more than 98 percent Hispanic and include large at-risk and ESL populations (more than 85 percent of the students). Both schools have high mobility rates and serve free lunches to more than 95 percent of their students.

TAAS, which is required to graduate, has been in place since 1990. The 60 multiple-choice problems test 13 objectives in three domains (number concepts, operations, and problem solving). Extraordinary pressure is placed on administrators, teachers, and students throughout the state to increase scores. The temptation to teach only to the test and to use quick-fix methods to raise scores is indeed strong. However, the test can and should be used to argue for a sound and rigorous mathematics curriculum.

Harlandale and Bowie are in their third and fourth years, respectively, of implementation. At Harlandale, TAAS passing rates rose from approximately 45 percent of first-time takers in 1995 to more than 85 percent in 2000. At Bowie High School, which offers both integrated mathematics and a traditional sequence, students who took SIMMS IM classes scored significantly better on the TAAS test than students who were enrolled in the traditional course sequence.

Test preparation has essentially been removed from the classroom. Students engage in a rich mathematics education that makes high test scores a nice by-product, not the focus, of instruction. Students discover and apply mathematics, thereby engaging in reading and problem solving every day. Word problems on tests are neither new nor intimidating. And although students use calculators in class, they perform well on the TAAS, which does not allow calculators. Estimation, making predictions, and evaluating answers for reasonableness are daily experiences that improve students' feel for the size and behavior of numbers. These experiences help students succeed even when specific algorithms, say, for dividing fractions, escape them during the test, which is often the case with anxious students.

Critics may point out that the TAAS tests too many standards from eighth-grade mathematics and is therefore a poor indicator of the quality of a high school mathematics program. The EOC, initiated to ensure that all freshmen are actually learning first-year algebra, tests nine objectives in three domains (graphing, equations and inequalities, and problem solving). At Bowie, almost half the SIMMS IM students passed the EOC, again significantly more than the students in non–SIMMS IM classes. At Harlandale, 32 percent of the first group of students who were enrolled in SIMMS IM and took the EOC exam passed—up from 10 percent the previous year and, more interestingly, after only one year of the curriculum. Because the curriculum is integrated, students explore about half the state standards for algebra 1 and geometry during the first year, as well as topics from probability, data analysis, and statistics. The remaining algebra and geometry standards are investigated in the second year, at the end of which students take the EOC.

In 2003, the TAAS test will change. More geometry standards will be tested; the EOC will be eliminated, and its objectives will be tested by the new TAAS. The authors believe that having SIMMS IM in place will prepare students for the more difficult test.

 

Gaby McMillian teaches integrated mathematics and chairs the department at Harlandale High School in San Antonio, Texas. She collaborated with Lupe Bujanda, who teaches integrated mathematics at Bowie High School in El Paso, Texas, on this essay.
 

 

 

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