The Impact of a State Mathematics Test on the Structure and Culture of a K-4 School

Article excerpt

Abstract

This study explored the impact of state mathematics testing on the structure and the culture of a K-4 school. We selected a school that was teaching students to the state mathematics test. Students at the school were doing well on the test. The school was ranked as an "excellent" in the state based on the result of the test. We examined the practices of the principal and two fourth grade teachers which were influenced by the state mandated tests. We also examined the perceptions of two fourth grade students in the school. The study raises some serious questions about the implications of such "high stakes", "end-of-the-line" testing on the structure and culture of this school and the reform movement in mathematics education.

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School change impacts school structure and culture and alters teacher/student interactions, attitudes, and beliefs towards mathematics. We investigated the practices of a principal and two fourth grade teachers which were influenced by the state mandated tests. We also examined the perceptions of two fourth grade students at the same school.

The state developed five categories for ranking schools. These five categories include: (1) excellent, (2) effective, (3) needs improvement, (4) academic watch, and (5) academic emergency. The state uses six points for determining school effectiveness. The six points consists of one point for student attendance on the average each day over the school year. For example, if a school has 95% or better students' attendance on the average each day over the school year, the school receives one point. Five additional points are given for the five sections of the test such as reading, writing, citizenship, mathematics, and science (one point for each). For example, if a school passage rate on each of the above five sections is 75% or better, the school receives one point for each of the sections.

If a school receives six points out of six points, then the school is categorized by the state as an "excellent" school. If a school gets four points out of six, then that puts the school in the "effective" category. Receiving three points out of six would mean that the school "needs improvement". Getting two points out of six means the school is in "academic watch." Lastly, obtaining one point or zero means the school is in "academic emergency."

The school that we studied was ranked by the state as an "excellent" school. Ironically, the teachers' philosophies and pedagogies were not compatible with current research on teaching and learning mathematics. The school administrator and teachers were not following the constructivist theory. They were not spending extended time for teaching mathematics. They were not using the Kumon mathematics program. The activities of the school educators were heavily focused on teaching to the mathematics test and preparing their students for the test. The students did well on the test. However, when we examined two of these students' conceptual understanding of mathematics, we found that they had limited knowledge for problem-solving and mathematical communication (cf. Martin et al., in this issue, section "dialogue with students").

To understand the above relationships between the state mandated mathematics test and the school structure and culture and the implications of these relationships on the school change, we conducted interviews with a school principal (four interviews), two fourth grade teachers (four interviews each), and two fourth grade African American students (10 interviews each) in the two teachers' classrooms for one school year. In addition, we incorporated extended participant observations (10 times in each) in the classrooms of the two student participants (one African American boy and one African American girl). We made field notes and examined some school documents such as the school's newsletters, bulletin boards, and student's written work. …