Math teacher explains PSSA math doesn't add up!

Below is an invaluable guest post which explains why PSSA math is nothing like SAT math, and why it is not going to help get our kids "ready" for their futures.

Why are the “new” state standardized tests 
so much harder than before?
By Katy Morris, public school parent and math teacher

There are plenty of reasons why the standardized tests that students take today are more difficult and time-consuming than before. One reason for the increased difficulty is the use of a new type of multiple-choice question.

Sure, most adults have taken multiple-choice tests. Many of us have less-than-fond memories of taking college entrance exams or exams for professional licensure, but I’ll show you that all multiple-choice tests are not created equal.

“Normal” multiple-choice tests

To understand the difference between “normal” multiple-choice and the “new” multiple-choice, consider the Directions that accompany the Math section of a sample SAT recently released by the College Board.

These Directions let the student know that she can solve the problem as written, then look for the answer among the choices. 

Here is a “normal” multiple-choice question:
This question can be solved by someone who knows how to solve a system of equations. Even without the answer choices, a student could solve the problem, then choose the correct answer – in that order. Content aside, the SAT Math questions are generally written so that they can be solved without looking at the answer choices. The questions are not necessarily easy, but the format is familiar. Solve first. Then find your answer. Repeat.  

“New” multiple-choice tests

Now consider the “new” multiple-choice tests, such as the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests. Here are the Directions that accompany the PSSA Mathematics and Scoring Sampler, released by the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). (This is the closest thing we have to a sample test, since the PSSA tests are cloaked in secrecy and protected by confidentiality clauses, but that’s another blog post entirely... )

These Directions are very similar to the SAT Directions. Reading these “Directions for Multiple-choice Questions”, one would expect that children could actually solve each problem, as it is written, and then look for their answer among the multiple-choices. That would make sense. 
That is NOT the reality.

In fact, the very first item released by the PDE on the 8th Grade Sampler requires students to try all of the answer choices in order to answer the question posed.

Instead of giving students a single problem to solve, the test writers have, in essence, given four problems to solve. A student must compute each expression (without a calculator) to determine that expression D is between -4 and -3.

In fact, the question itself makes no sense without the answer choices. With this question and many others, students are unable to follow the Directions, as stated. How would a student “solve the problem on scratch paper”?

In short, they can’t.

With this item, the test writers allegedly were testing the following standard from the PA Core Standards. 

Here is a common-sense suggestion for how this standard could be tested more directly.

But, asking direct questions is not the business of the “new” multiple-choice tests. In fact, there is no way to solve these questions as written. Not every question is like this, but there are enough to make these tests extremely time-consuming and frustrating for kids.

And it happens again… (on the7th Grade PSSA Math Sampler)

and again… (on the 6th Grade PSSA Math Sampler)

and again… (on the 5th Grade PSSA Math Sampler

So, are you smarter than the 5th graders who have to try all these answer choices?

Comparing apples and oranges
I’ve heard adults say that children should suck it up and take the standardized tests they are given. After all, their reasoning is that students will eventually have to take the SATs. So they should start getting the practice now. But comparing the SATs to the PSSAs is comparing apples and oranges.

In short, the PSSA test writers have written questions that require students to solve all the answer choices in order to answer the question. And they’ve written Directions that are impossible to follow. It’s no wonder our kids are confused by the PSSA questions.
Solving 4 problems to get 1 answer? The math just doesn’t add up!

Please excuse formatting and font error in this post due to blog limitations on the day of posting.


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