The Impact of a State Mathematics Test on the Structure and Culture of a K-4 School
Pourdavood, Roland G., Martin, Belvia K., Carignan, Nicole, Focus on Learning Problems in Mathematics
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.
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.
Interview tapes were transcribed and all transcriptions, field notes and related documents were analyzed and interpreted. Furthermore, some participants were provided with opportunities to read and help revise transcriptions of the interviews. In what follows, we describe the setting and the participants.
Setting and Participants
The study was conducted in a suburb of a Mid-Western city. The K-4 school had 297 students enrolled. Fifty-nine percent of the students were white, 34% were African American, and 7% were others (I.e., Asian, Middle Eastern, Hispanic, etc.). The key participants in the study were Mr. Connor (principal), two fourth grade teachers (Mrs. Dickerson and Mrs. Stromberg), and two African American students (Beth and Carl). We changed the names of all participants to maintain anonymity.
Mr. Connor's first degree was in economics with a minor in geology but eventually, he decided to teach. "[I] sort of found where I felt I fit." He was a 6th grade teacher for 9 years. He worked in another state Department of Education as the science coordinator of curriculum and then came to this school district in 1982. About eight years ago, he became a principal at his present school "to calm hurt feelings and smooth ruffled feathers when race, class, and faculty issues got out of hand." He discussed his experiences and explained his thoughts about education and mathematics education:
I was surprised at the ... tremendously high expectations for schools-[in this district] ... This school system and the community are its own worst critics. They are constantly evaluating themselves ... Do I think we have more great mathematicians? No, I don't think we have more great mathematicians. I don't think that's going to be a product of the schools. Do we have children with a better sense of numbers? Yes, I think so. We still have difficulty with children learning multiplication in the third grade and with long division. I've worked in integrated schools my entire educational career, and I have found in my own personal experience that the critical ingredient for all children's success really comes from the home. Nothing can change that ... In math, I just want to see [students] working at their potential. I can't ask for more than that.
From our long conversations with Mr. Connor, it became clear that he valued students' mastery of basic skills in mathematics (I.e. multiplication and long division). In addition, he thought that children's success in education was closely related to their home environment. The school structure and culture for providing educational opportunity was secondary. According to Mr. Connor, he was not out to 'change the world' or establish a new world order in mathematics education. He had some ideas about how "it could be good for students to work with more manipulative." It seemed, though, that he did not expect too much to happen quickly to change mathematics education.
Although he seemed interested and willing to consider the new awareness recommended by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Standards and other research documents in mathematics education, he did not seem to feel that the core of the mathematics program at his school would change. Tradition was still the rule. Nevertheless, he was very much aware of the importance of the state testing and made sure that his curriculum materials contained topics that students would be exposed to during the testing process and thus garner the highest degree of technical skill in all areas. He purchased many prepackaged mathematics and reading programs in preparation for the state tests. He encouraged his teachers to use these materials, setting clear objectives on a set schedule to make sure they "cover everything" that was …
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Publication information: Article title: The Impact of a State Mathematics Test on the Structure and Culture of a K-4 School. Contributors: Pourdavood, Roland G. - Author, Martin, Belvia K. - Author, Carignan, Nicole - Author. Journal title: Focus on Learning Problems in Mathematics. Volume: 27. Issue: 1-2 Publication date: Spring 2005. Page number: 91+. © 2008 Center for Teaching - Learning of Mathematics. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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