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Test Scores Falling? Change the Test!

The Star Tribune ponders the fact that Minnesota students’ math scores keep dropping: “As test scores drop, Minnesota educators seek a ‘new conversation’ about math.” I think “new conversation” means they want to change the subject away from falling test scores.

Math scores on the biggest statewide exam have plummeted for six straight years, troubling some education officials and teachers — and prompting deep discussions about how to teach math in a more holistic way.

Why, exactly, do falling scores suggest a need to teach more “holistically”? Math is an objective field. Either the student comes up with the right answer, or he doesn’t. Increasingly, Minnesota students don’t.

Last year, just 55% of students met state standards on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, a slide of six percentage points in just over a decade. The decline spans all racial groups, and has diverged from the trend in reading scores, which have largely remained flat.

So what do Minnesota’s educators have to say about declining classroom performance? Basically, if the kids aren’t doing well on math tests, the solution is to change the tests:

Some fault the test itself, calling it an outdated metric that doesn’t fully capture the lessons and progress students are making in the classroom.
Several follow the work of Jo Boaler, a Stanford professor who specializes in math education, runs a popular education website, and advocates for changing the way math has been taught for more than a century. Boaler dislikes traditional standardized tests and says neither those results, nor teaching math the same way it’s been done for years, is helping students in Minnesota or elsewhere.

“If we agree we need some sort of assessment, I would make it a lot better than the tests we use now,” she said.

No test is perfect, of course. But, as the Strib notes, “[l]ittle about the [MCA] test has changed in recent years.” What has changed is the test results. They are getting worse, year after year. To blame students’ worsening performance on the test is to excuse failure–something educators have way too much experience at.