This fall, I and many of my colleagues decided not to give a cumulative final exam. Instead, I gave students a rubric for a math art project using Desmos. I’ve done this project before during spring semester, but never as an end of semester cumulative ‘assessment.’ In order to get an A, my Algebra 2 students needed to include functions we hadn’t learned about yet. They ran with it.
This was a genuine assessment, as I answered any question they asked, but got them to learn and take risks. This project allowed for instant feedback and was challenging and even frustrating at times for students, but they handled it and some even said it was addicting. Is that a bad thing?
“I really enjoy my math final art project. I got so kind of addicted to the process of doing it, even though it was a lot of trial and error. But it was a great opportunity for me to mix my passion with the ocean, sharks, etc… with something I’m learning in school. That’s one of the few opportunities you get to do in school. Mixing something that you’re really passionate about and put it into your daily life kind of. This was the highlight for me this semester during COVID and I really enjoyed it. Thank you Ms. Hailer.” – Caroline L.
In 2013, I wrote my master’s thesis on Algebra 2 as a gatekeeper course. I used performance data from the standardized test at the time, the STAR test. It tested every student every year in mathematics, by the course they took.
Since then, some things have changed including the standards we teach for each course and the frequency at which we test students. We administer a standardized test in high school mathematics only in the 11th grade. There are some others, but this is the main one for monitoring proficiency levels on a wide-scale basis throughout California.
I was wondering if our proficiency scores had improved over time. At a glance, they haven’t. But, let’s dig deeper. In some ways, this is an apple to oranges comparison because now all students take the same exam in their junior year of high school, instead of taking an exam every year, based on which course they are currently taking. The exam is administered mostly online and is apparently interactive. You can get detailed information about how the exam works here. In fact, there is a lot of detail there and it may be overwhelming, so good luck!
I decided that the best approach for comparison would simply be to look at the Algebra 2 proficiency scores and compare them to the 11th grade exam, since it is the recommended path that most students take Algebra 2 by their junior year, even though some take it sooner and some take it later.
You can see the results for 2012 Algebra 2 proficiency for each of the Counties in the 9-County San Francisco Bay Area and the State of California here. The main graphic that shows the break down of proficiency level by grade for Algebra 2 is below:
This chart shows proficiency levels by grade for Algebra 2. You can see that the younger students are doing better than the older students. The reasons for this are explored in the thesis. This post is meant to focus on whether or not things have improved since then. The thesis examines breakdowns of proficiency levels by grade (above) and by gender and race and ethnicity levels. For comparison purposes, let’s look at the California dashboard for math proficiency scores for 2017-2018. I would think, with seven years of transition time, an easing of the standards, more emphasis placed on understanding relationships and an interactive test, we will see a strengthening in our proficiency levels. Below are the overall results for proficiency levels for the state for 2018-2019.
Source: California Department of Education Website, 01/20/20.
I don’t know about you, but the 32.24% met or exceeded Standard for Math does not seem very good to me. Back in 2012, many students were taking Algebra 1 in 8th grade – the popular thought at the time was that younger students were doing better, so have all students take algebra in 8th grade. That has since gone by the wayside as many students were not successful in that model. For tenth graders, though, proficiency levels for the state were at 42% (link to report and view pages 22-23 for detailed state and county information).
Unfortunately, with all the implemented changes, there doesn’t seem to be an improvement in outcomes. The reasons are plentiful, but it’s got me questioning our system. We are teaching an antiquated model: Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2 in an attempt to move students to Calculus and be successful. However, I question this goal. In practice, many people working in analytic fields requiring mathematics backgrounds are using computers to solve problems and make calculations. Those computer skills – programming, analysis, and data use, are not making it into the classroom until much later in a student’s education career.
There is a move to make more changes to our system that incorporate some data science which includes analyzing data, learning to write some code, and understanding how to create data displays. I have no idea if this approach would raise proficiency scores, but I don’t really care. I think the testing system is dramatically flawed and we keep trying to get the teaching and testing right around these antiquated approaches to the curriculum pathway.
I believe the core three years of mathematics education should shift from proof and abstract problems to applied problems that prepare students for careers other than mathematicians. Our system builds from generations of candlelight and paper and pencil-based tools. That simply is no longer our reality and we need to make some jumps in our methods and expected outcomes.
We should keep teaching about functions and lines and logarithms and conic sections. It’s just that we should include applications. Applications are abundant. We need people who work in fields that use these functions, programs and relationships to help design effective and interesting problems for students. I know that I can do this in economics, and there are others who can do this with physics, medicine, engineering, etc.
We can teach students some coding using R, but teachers need to learn it, too. There are free resources to help with that! Just google “free resources for learning R.” Wait, I just did and have included a link at the bottom of this post.
The opinions stated above are mine alone – oh wait! They are not mine alone. Please check out Jo Boaler’s YouCubed website if you don’t believe me: https://www.youcubed.org/resource/data-literacy/ Then, Scroll to the bottom and see all of the articles and resources that back up this idea.
My other big concern is how today’s math teachers, who may not have had experience with data analysis, are going to be able to implement changes. I am hoping to help with this.
Today was our AP® Microeconomics exam on industrial organization, market failure, and government interventions. It was covering eight chapters in the text. After creating it, I had a few concerns:
it was too long
there were a couple things on there that I didn’t feel we thoroughly covered
I didn’t want to shorten it or postpone it
So, it was time to be creative. I know my students want to do well and that they care about learning. They want to get good grades, go to college, and have nice lives. I want all that for them, too. This test had the potential to cause a bunch of stress, complaints, and grade damage. I needed a solution.
You may be thinking, well, just shorten it! Yeah, I thought the same thing. However, I wanted them to have the full range of possible AP® style questions that they would face on the AP® exam. And, it was about half the length of the exam. The AP® exam is only two hours and ten minutes long and we had 90 minutes for our test period. So, I felt it was actually a fair length, just longer than our usual in-class exams. I also liked all of the questions and knew we had covered everything except for a couple of terms that I felt they could figure out, like “average tax rate.”
To take a pulse of how the kids were doing, I went around the room and checked in with everyone. “How’s it going?” “Any questions?” Most of them said no. They said it was okay.
But, I still wanted to provide an opportunity for them to do better. With about 15 minutes left in the period, I told the students to review the exam, read any questions they hadn’t gotten to and scan the vocabulary and diagrams. I told them they could have ten more minutes to work on the test. At the end of the test, I told them they could go home, study again and have their tests back during the first 15 minutes of the next class (in two days – we have block periods).
During our tutorial period today, a group of students came in to work together and to try to ask me more questions. I didn’t want to answer but paid close attention to their discussions. It was thrilling to see them argue about ideas, look things up, work together and come to a consensus with how monopolists make profits and engage in price discrimination, how deadweight loss occurs, how a tax can fall unequally on consumers and producers and other microeconomic concepts.
The best moment was when one of the students said, “This is great, I’m learning so much from this!” He’s a strong student anyway, who typically gets high grades and I was pleased to know that he was getting a lot out of the process.
I know this breaks the tradition of testing, but I also knew these students appreciate a break and have an opportunity to know exactly what to study. It’s almost a way to build in a retake or have them do test corrections. Whatever the case, it accomplished what I hoped it would. A targeted re-studying session and a highly engaged discussion amongst the students where they strengthened their knowledge and improved their ability to demonstrate content mastery.
Sixteen students and one parent just left my classroom after I hosted a math test anxiety workshop. The purpose was to provide some knowledge and insight about how to recognize the cause of their anxiety and to manage it before, during, and after a test.
We discussed what test anxiety is, the causes and symptoms, and then some techniques to manage those symptoms. I used three resources for the workshop (links at end of blog post). Most of the following is primarily from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America at this link. I used some prepared notes as we talked and had students write in causes and symptoms of anxiety, then reflect on what they were experiencing.
Here’s a play by play of the workshop:
First, set up the room with a seating arrangement where everyone can see each other. A circle is best, but tables pushed together to form a square works, too. Have some snacks out and ask student to pass them around and put away phones or homework.
Provide a handout and let students have space to write down the information and reflect on their own experiences. Here’s a test-anxiety-workshop-handout with the guided notes sheet I created and a printed article from teenshealth.org available here. All of the links on the handout are listed at the bottom of this post (since you can’t click on the pdf links).
Encourage students to have a snack and pass the plate of mints (or other snack) around. This gets them to interact on a small (but fun) scale.
Intro: What is test anxiety?
Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety. Much like a gymnast who has practiced her routine, she will feel nervous the day of the competition. Also, like the first day of school when we, as teachers, meet our class for the first time. We’ve prepared our greeting, have our course information organized and then suddenly get nervous as we actually start to speak. Students feel this during presentations, during competitions, and during tests. A little bit of anxiety can be a good thing. But, when it interferes with your performance, it needs to be recognized, examined and addressed.
Prepared or not prepared? If you’ve prepared and feel you know the math, you’ve been successful on practice problems and you’ve completed the assignments, you’ve paid attention during class and understood the material, then you are very likely prepared for the test. However, you may not have done all those things and you may be feeling like you should have studied more. As students walk in the room, they are talking about things you are suddenly feeling unsure of. You may now be feeling unprepared for the test. This may be the source of your anxiety.
Fear of failure and/or the consequences of failing. It’s possible that you have really high expectations of yourself or someone else has really high expectations of you, putting a great deal of pressure on you to perform well on the test. Maybe you think you must get an A or you will not get into that prestigious college. You don’t want to do your best, you want to do THE best.
Prior bad experiences in math or on tests resulting in a negative attitude towards your performance, or the test, or school. These past bad experiences can be causing anxiety.
After discussing these causes, students were given some time to reflect on what was causing their anxiety. It could be from one, two or all of the above. We took about 5 minutes to share out. This share out allowed students to talk and hear what was causing stress for others. They could share their personal specific situations. After the share time, the mood in the room was more relaxed. People were talking to each other about what was bothering them and what they were worried about.
Physical: headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, light-headedness, and feeling faint. It can even lead to panic attacks which can make a person think they are having a heart attack or can’t breathe. All of these physical symptoms detract from a person’s ability to focus on other things.
Emotional: People can feel feelings of anger, fear, disappointment or helplessness. All of these feeling interfere with one’s ability to concentrate. They can be a consuming. It is hard to simplify a rational expression on a test if you are dealing with these feelings.
Behavioral or Cognitive: Having negative thoughts or comparing yourself to others can cause anxiety. Your concentration is lowered when you are telling yourself that you aren’t as good as others.Are you telling yourself you’re bad at math? Or that you are not a good test taker? Those are negative thoughts and they cause anxiety if you are about to take a test.
Again, give students time to write down their symptoms and share out.
Tips and techniques to manage anxiety
Before the test: (and maybe during for some)
Minimize the susceptibility to anxiety by taking care of yourself. Get enough sleep. Not just the night before the test, but regularly. Eat a healthy breakfast – eggs, oatmeal, something nourishing. Drink water. Get exercise and take time to yourself on a regular basis.
Make sure you’ve actually prepared. Ask your teacher for guidance. Check resources at TeensHealth.org for ideas about study skills. Studying takes place early and often. Cramming rarely results in sustained strong performance.
Keep a positive attitude and remember that this test is not a measure of your worth as a person. Do your best and keep expectations reasonable. When you expect A’s and A’s only, well, that’s putting the highest expectation on yourself that you can. Would you do that to a friend? Probably not.
What would you tell a friend? Tell yourself the same thing. Use positive self-talk. Remember that great 3-pointer you shot, or think about how great your boots look, or how you wrote a great poem, or paper. Think of your favorite song or book. Think of a favorite character from a favorite book and imagine what they would say or do.
Have a reward planned for after the test. Give yourself something positive to look forward to. A movie after school, ice cream with friends, etc.
During the test:
If you notice anxiety setting in, work to balance it. For physical symptoms, take three deep, slow breaths. Then, relax your jaw. Actually let your mouth open a bit, making sure your teeth are not touching. Wait 5 seconds. Then relax your shoulders. Pull your shoulder blades down your back and relax. Place both feet on the floor to relax your leg muscles. Jaw, shoulders, legs. Now relax your abdomen. Now your hands. Put the pencil down and rest your hands on the desk or your thighs. Take 3 deep, slow breaths.
Then, tell yourself how great you are.
Remember to read the directions and questions. Start with an easy problem. Scan the test before starting. Do the problems out of order. Where possible, check your answers. Always try something on every problem. Your idea is probably a great starting place.
Focus on the test, not other students.
Remember to look forward to your reward.
After the test, remember that you did your best. Enjoy your reward. For next time, if you need to study differently, ask your teacher for ideas. If you need more help with managing anxiety, ask the counselors for help, or check out the websites on the handout.
Give students time again to imagine which techniques they can see themselves using. Let them use some space to creat some positiev self-talk messages. Let them think of a possible reward for them selves. Ask them to share out.
Yesterday, I suddenly decided on a new quiz format. I had been writing a quiz for my Honors Algebra 2 class and I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t interesting or challenging. I really didn’t want to make a second version (my kids sit at tables), and was hoping for several days that some inspiration would hit. Our text has a set of alternate assessment questions, but they are a bit involved.
So, in the 5 minutes before class started, inspiration hit like a tons of bricks.
I let them use the alternate questions, and work in pairs. There are 6 students at a table group and we were covering two chapters. I gave them packets of the questions. There were about 7 questions for Chapter 1 and 6 questions for chapter 2. The guidelines were that they had to answer one question from each packet and couldn’t answer the same questions as the people at the table group. So, that’s a total of 6 questions for the table, three from each chapter, two for each pair of students.
To make it an actual quiz, they couldn’t use notes. They also couldn’t ask me questions. Actually, they could, but they would lose a point. Each question was worth 10 points, for 20 points total. Asking one question would still yield an A. But, no one asked any questions. The kids were engaged and worked steadily for about 35-40 minutes. Most finished, no problem.
I called time at 45 minutes. Some students hadn’t finished. I gave 5 more minutes. However, a couple of groups didn’t get to the second question or had just started it. Uh-oh.
So, as this is a group of motivated, grade-stressed students, I allowed them to come back at lunch or after school or during our tutorial time to finish. They appreciated it, so we were good.
The best part, was in the ask for feedback about the quiz format.
I gave them three prompts:
Partner quiz again? yes/no
This would have been better if…
This was good for…
They unanimously liked the partner quiz because they had another brain to work with. Asking for feedback is gold! Making myself vulnerable was scary. Here I had changed up the quiz in the last few minutes, kids didn’t finish, they were afraid to ask a question even when it would have gotten them to the finish.
Would I do it again? Yes! Overall, it was a positive practice for them and for me. In fact, I’m doing it again today with my other section of that class. I’m happily incorporating their feedback with what I observed to make the following changes for the next class and next partner quiz. Here’s my list:
They asked me to:
Make more copies of the questions – it slowed them down to have to share.Yes. Done. Easy.
Allow questions. Well, I’m thinking no on that, because I think they will ask me a million questions. So, modified practice: they can ask the question. If it’s a fair question, I will guide with no point deduction. If it’s a question about not understanding the content, then I will take a point if I answer. They can ask the question, then I will answer or respond with, “Yes, I’ll answer, but it will cost a point.” Then they can decide if they want the answer.
Give more time. No, but I will advise students to read the entire question before choosing (most have multiple parts) and remind them that they can change the question if they get really stuck. Also, I will be more active in making sure everyone is employing strategies to finish on time.
No one mentioned this in the feedback, but I didn’t give them a time frame before they started. I wasn’t sure how long it would take. When half the class was finished, I announced 10 more minutes. I should have circulated a bit to check on their progress at around 20 minutes to let students know they should start on their second question within 5 minutes, so they have time to finish.
Now, I just have to grade them. That’s nice too, because I only half the number of quizzes to grade. Another teacher benefit from the partner quiz.
Please comment below with questions or ideas or practices you have tried. If you want to know more about the course or text, send me an email.
One of the toughest things about grading is when the students with 79% or 89% ask/plead/argue for the B- or the A-. I do round an 89.5% or higher, to the 90%. I think that’s just doing proper rounding, as I like to teach in my classes, as opposed to truncating the grades. [Don’t know what truncating is? You can find out here] . But then, the 89.2% kid asks for the A-, too. I would be inclined if their test scores were in the A range, but they weren’t completing all the assignments, and so homework was dragging the grade down. But, if the test scores are in the B range, and homework completion is bringing the grade up to B+, I think that’s good enough.
I have several students who’ve missed a lot of school, or have ADHD and just don’t complete every assignment, or just never are there or aren’t organized enough to present the assignments for credit. If they have high test scores, I’m inclined to round their grades towards those test scores. However, high homework scores with lower test scores are not a compelling argument for me to round the grades higher, even though that’s the request I get a lot.
We just had final exams, another tough grading challenge. I think it’s normal for students to score about one grade lower on the final exam than their unit test scores. And, when that happens, I usually let them keep the grade they earned prior to the exam. An example would be a student who had a B in the course, earned a C on the final, bringing their grade to a B-. I would be inclined to let them keep the B. But, if they score low on the final (a D or an F), I do let the grade drop, but not by more that a half a grade. And, if that same student with the B earned a D on the final, they would end up with a B-. They see the B part and are still feeling content, I think. However, if a student had a B- to begin with, scored a D on the final, and ended up with a C+, they will see the C and possibly (probably) be upset about the outcome. The difference in the GPA would be the same (0.3 points) but, suddenly, the letter B to the letter C is very noticeable. That’s when I get the email with the ask/plead/argue message. Sometimes the parents get involved, too. But, I have to stick with my convictions on the grading in these situations.
My grading policies and decisions around tests versus homework and semester grade versus final exam grade are pretty generous in my opinion. Many teachers let the computer calculate the grade based on the settings for the weights they decided at the start of the semester. Many others make exceptions, too.
In addition to the above rules of thumb around my grading decisions at the end of the semester, during the semester I’ve been known to drop some low scores when the class doesn’t do well on a quiz. I think that I didn’t teach them very well when that happens, and we revisit the material.
Algebra 2 is a hard class and not everyone will get an A, even if they usually get As in other classes or in prior math classes. This is one of the tougher lessons for high school students to learn. They are hitting a level of math that really requires studying, critical thinking and perseverance for the longer, more involved problems. They aren’t all ready for that level of problem solving. Even if they are, the course is content rich, meaning there is a lot to learn and a set amount of time in which to learn it.
Students are busy with tough course loads, sports, hobbies or jobs, and social and family activities. Many students don’t have adequate time outside of school to study as much as they need to in order to get the grade they want. Others make sacrifices and get every assignment done every day. They come in and ask questions after they’ve tried to figure things out on their own. Some ask questions immediately without giving themselves time to try a solution, because they are used to the quick answer or they feel pressed to get the questions answered quickly, without a deeper understanding for when the next question comes. In learning math, you learn so much from making mistakes and trying new approaches. Especially at this level. But, I think that requires a level of calm and concentration that many teens aren’t used to. Trial and error are involved. I try to talk abut this to my students when I can.
Some people may wonder about the purpose of the final. Well, I think it’s important to review what they learned over the year. I think it’s important to have a idea of what they’ve retained and to remind students what they need to know for the next course. I think it’s good for them to have an idea of what they remember and what they may need to re-study. And, I don’t let the final exam kill their grade. I think that’s the bad part about finals, which is why I have some of the policies listed above. A final exam can bring a student’s semester grade down much more than it can raise it.
I plan to include these grading philosophies and practices, and study tips and techniques for retention and deeper understanding in my beginning of the year mini-unit next year. I introduced the idea in my blog post Summer reading, relaxing and revamping…. and will post it when it’s done.