Wednesday, June 16, 2010

We Want Kids to Think, Right?

By Pam Kenney

Diane Ravitch is a distinguished scholar, a professor at NYU, the author of the recently released The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, and part of a two-member team that writes the blog “Bridging Differences.” I love reading “Bridging Differences”, and my views on education frequently align with those of Ravitch. Lately her focus has been on testing and teacher accountability.

In her June 15, 2010 post, Ravitch chides elected officials and education honchos for creating accountability policies that are so unrealistic they generate teaching to the test, circumscribed curricula, lowered standards, and outright cheating. Yes, I’m thinking as I read, that’s certainly true. She goes on to discuss and disparage how states have improved their students’ results on standardized tests by lowering the tests’ “cut” scores. For example, in New York in 2006, a seventh grader was rated “proficient” if he got 59.6% of the points correct on the annual state mathematics test. By 2009, the cut score for proficiency on the test by a seventh grader was 44%. In other words, “proficient” has been manipulated to such as extent that it has become meaningless. Yep, that’s a problem all right.

Next she cites and praises “some whistle-blowing teachers” who alerted the New York Post that the scoring method for this year’s standardized math test had been changed. Lo and behold students were given partial credit for some answers when they were incorrect and for some questions where no answer was supplied at all. Two of the examples that Ravitch gives the reader are from the fourth grade scoring guide:

  • “A miscalculation that 28 divided by 14 equals 4 instead of 2 is ‘partially correct’ if the student uses the right method to verify the wrong answer.”
  • “A child who subtracts 57 cents from three quarters for the right change and comes up with 15 cents instead of 18 cents still gets half credit.”
Ms. Ravitch says she hopes the children taking tests with this type of scoring never become engineers or choose other careers that require mathematical accuracy.


Accustomed as I am to nodding my head when I read Diane Ravitch, I was dumbfounded by her criticism of awarding students partial credit for understanding a math concept. Isn’t that what educators have been working toward for 25 years or more? Aren’t we trying to deemphasize rote learning and replace it with strong problem-solving skills? Of course, accuracy is an important skill, but I want my students to be able to analyze a problem, understand the math concepts that elucidate it, and choose the strategies and steps needed to solve it. If they make a careless computation error or forget how many inches are in a foot, so what? I can accept it and am thrilled to give them partial credit for their answers because they’ve earned it. It’s clear to me that they understand what they’re doing, they're building on previous knowledge, they’re thinking. Isn’t that what we want?