From the NCSM President
Diane J. Briars
I'm writing this shortly after the Conference Board of the Mathematics Sciences (CBMS) Forum on the Content and Assessment of School Mathematics. CBMS is an umbrella organization consisting of 17 professional societies including NCSM-all of which have as one of their primary objectives the increase or diffusion of knowledge in one or more of the mathematical sciences. During the conference, I was particularly struck by the following quote from Frank Lester's presentation during the plenary assessment session.
We live in the age of assessment. At no other time in the history of education in the United States, and for that matter in other countries, have so many people, resources, and time been devoted to measuring students' knowledge and performance in mathematics. Assessment has come to be viewed by policy makers and others to be more a lever for reform than merely an indication of the effectiveness of reform. [Webb (2007, p. 1821) emphasis added]1
We are all well aware of the pressures associated with the current climate of assessment and accountability. The challenge for us as mathematics education leaders is how to channel this pressure for test scores to promote increased student learning.
One negative by-product of pressures to raise test scores is increased attention to test prep. Too often, teachers are asked to put regular instruction "on hold" to spend class time practicing test questions. While on the surface this may appear to make sense, research indicates just the opposite-test scores are actually lower in schools where teachers spend large amounts of time on test prep [Allensworth, Correa, & Ponisciak (2008)].2
So what should teachers be doing? Providing students with periodic opportunities to practice using concepts and skills, along with feedback about their performance, helps students solidify their knowledge and promotes retention, reflection, generalization, and transfer of knowledge and skill [IES Practice Guide (2007)]. Such practice can be done in a variety of ways- daily warm-ups and review problems as part of homework, as quizzes, or as classroom questions. What is important is the periodic opportunity for students to recall and apply concepts and skills, with feedback about their work. This includes concepts and skills from previous courses and grades; not just those taught in a current mathematic class.
Providing students challenging curriculum that includes ample opportunities for them to engage in tasks involving reasoning and sense-making is also associated with higher test scores. Such tasks help students develop conceptual understanding, make connections among concepts and procedures, as well as develop their problem solving and reasoning capabilities.
To communicate to administrators and teachers the counter-productiveness of extensive test prep is our responsibility as leaders. Even more important, it is our responsibility to help them engage in productive activities that increase students' learning and retention of mathematics concepts and skills. It has been shown that this is the way to increase test scores.
In short, the best test-prep is high quality instruction that develops students' conceptual understanding and problem-solving capabilities and provides opportunities for on-going, distributed practice of important concepts and skills.
Check out NCSM's "New Look" at mathedleadership.org. Our redesigned Website uses new navigation and increased functionality to provide easy access to information, resources, and services to support you as a mathematics education leader. Thanks to Susan Beal, Laurie Boswell, Charlene Chausis, Jim Conrey, Tim Kanold, Donna Karsten, Fern Tribbey, and Steve Viktora for their vision and work to launch NCSM's new Website. One of the new features of the Website allows visitors to subscribe to NCSM eNEWS, NCSM's newest publication. This electronic newsletter will provide timely news briefs and the latest developments of interest to mathematics education leaders. As an NCSM member, you have automatically been signed up to receive NCSM eNEWS. Many thanks to Jim Lynn for his work to conceive, edit, and publish this new communications tool.
1 Webb, N. (2007). In F.K. Lester (Ed.), Second handbook of research on mathematics teaching and learning. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
2 Allensworth, E., Correa, M., & Ponisciak, S. (2008). From high school to the future: ACT preparation-Too much, too late. CCSR Research Report.