I feel like thinking about, much less writing about, high stakes tests in the summer is a crime. We teachers shouldn’t be thinking about such things. We should be sitting by a beach relaxing! However, I don’t know if I can ever really completely put it out of my mind.
Let’s backtrack a little……Two years ago my class was somehow selected to pilot the math PARCC assessment. My students took the constructed response portion of the test on a classroom set of laptops. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, and I knew that the test didn’t count toward anything, so I gave my students absolutely no preparation for the test. I just told everyone to relax and do their best. Once the test began, I was blown away when I saw the first problem. I had never seen such a difficult and confusing question before. Even as the math teacher, I felt like I would need to sit down with a piece of paper and a pencil to actually solve the problem. Every problem I saw had several steps, and most of the steps required students to use multiple operations within each step. Within a few minutes of testing, I had several students flat out crying which Broke. My. Heart. I’m a laid back person, but that just about made me lose my mind. I was so upset, because I felt like I had failed my students.
Needless to say, I thought and thought and worried and worried about the test. Why couldn’t my students do it? What did I do wrong? What am I going to do if that test actually counts? How will I fix this? You get the picture. After a lot of time and a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t the content in the math that stumped my students. It was the test itself. My students had no clue how to break down a multi-step problem. They could easily solve multi-step word problems, but this was more than that. It was, for lack of a better word, bigger. I ended up making it my mission to learn everything I could about constructed response math problems.
Honestly, there wasn’t that much out there, but I did the best I could. Below are some of the books I read that did help me learn more about writing in the content area.
After a lot of reading and work with my students, I came to the conclusion that there were seven essential steps in solving these extended constructed response problems.
I spend a considerable amount of time working on each of these steps with my class. Some of the were fairly easy for my students, and others required a quite a bit of time and practice. I also spent time teaching my students about different types of questions and how to answer each of these questions.
I also created three different graphic organizers that my students could use to solve these constructed response problems. I really feel like they needed a visual to help them break down the problem into steps. This makes is so much more manageable for students.
I’ve found that my students need extra scaffolding with this type of problem. I like to start the year with just addition and subtraction two-step problems and then move into all four operations two-step problems. Once they get comfortable with that type of problem, I then move my students into three-step problems with all operations, fractions, geometry, and measurement.
I think the hardest part of the whole process was writing the questions, which is why I’ve compiled everything into my new Math Constructed Response pack. It has tons of tools for teaching students how to solve extended constructed response math problems. This pack includes posters, bookmarks, graphic organizers, and 30 constructed response questions.
I organized the questions into six different categories, so you can build upon your students’ progress and gradually increase the level of difficulty of the problems. I am so excited to have this pack ready to use at the beginning of the year, because I plan to give my students one problem a week to complete for the duration of the year. I feel like this will be the best way to prepare them for their high stakes test. I certainly learned the hard way that this type of test does take practice!