Math Teachers Launch Effort To Develop Assessment Standards

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SEATTLE--The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has embarked on a two-year project to develop national standards for math assessment that are expected to help close the gap between existing tests and the council's vision of well-designed performance-based examinations.

Mary M. Lindquist, the president of the N.C.T.M., announced at the council's annual meeting here March 31 to April 3 that a panel of math educators this summer will develop draft standards for assessment in two categories: "classroom instructional decisions'' and the areas of policy, planning, and student placement.

The new document will share the same format as--and serve as a companion piece to--the group's existing standards for math teaching and curriculum, she said.

The draft standards are expected to be finished by the fall, with final standards to be released in the spring of 1995, following a period of national review by focus groups of math educators and others.

The assessment project will expand on 14 "evaluation benchmarks'' contained in the N.C.T.M.'s existing curriculum-standards document, which was published four years ago.

That document, along with a volume of teaching standards published in 1991, have become templates for efforts to set national standards in other disciplines, particularly science. (See related story, page 5.)

A Call for Revision

But even as Ms. Lindquist announced the assessment project, a prominent math educator who is a critic of elements of the teaching and curriculum standards was calling for their revision.

Zalman Usiskin, a math professor at the University of Chicago, told participants at a well-attended session here that, unless the standards are updated to reflect changes in pedagogy, technological developments, and broader issues in school reform, as well as to correct errors, they may have no lasting impact on the school-reform movement.

"There are people who don't agree with [elements] of the standards who are waiting for [them] to go away,'' Mr. Usiskin said.

Unless the standards are updated continuously "they will die,'' he added. "They will be viewed as a fad of our times.''

Ms. Lindquist said in an interview that there are no plans yet to update the standards. But she confirmed Mr. Usiskin's assertion that the council is considering publishing second editions of the documents.

"I think we've had that in mind from the very beginning,'' she said.

But, she added, "they're not something that we're going to look at every two years, either.''

She noted that the council continues to issue a series of "addenda'' to allow researchers to elaborate on the original documents.

And she said the council has contracted with Iris Weiss, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, to examine the effect of the standards on math teaching as part of a larger study of math performance she is conducting for the National Science Foundation.

A 'Political Issue'

At the N.C.T.M.'s annual meeting last year in Memphis, the council released a baseline survey of teachers' reactions to how the standards were being implemented, suggesting that the data would be updated annually.

No update was issued this year, however, and Ms. Lindquist said that Ms. Weiss's work is expected to serve instead as a more comprehensive and independent gauge of reform.

She added that it is unlikely that the N.C.T.M. would embark on second editions of the existing documents until the assessment standards have been published.

Ms. Lindquist also conceded that the development of the assessment benchmarks is likely to be more controversial than the earlier standards-setting efforts.

When the council's pioneering curriculum-standards project began in 1987, little public scrutiny or criticism accompanied the process.

But, she said, the reputation of the standards has given the N.C.T.M. a higher profile among educators.

And, she added, "assessment is a much more political issue'' today.

She noted that the new panel will have to examine such sensitive issues as the appropriate uses of assessment, questions of fairness and equity in testing, and the matching of assessment with curriculum.

Implementation Problems

Meanwhile, despite an assertion by Iris Carl, the N.C.T.M.'s past president, that 40 states have adopted or plan to adopt math curricula based on the standards, a random sampling of a host of sessions on the implementation of the standards suggested that reform is still largely a hit-and-miss process.

Change at the classroom level, for example, still appears to be a matter of individual initiative.

Susan McMillan, a high school teacher in Addison, Ill., described her efforts to incorporate elements of the standards into her teaching, including having students keep journals of their progress.

But, she noted, "making the changes is not easy'' and requires not only the initiative of teachers, but the support of administrators.

She said, for example, that she illustrated "real world'' uses of math, as urged by the standards, by having students help her prepare to run a marathon. The students used data they collected during her training to estimate what her actual running time would be, then calculated why those estimates may have varied from the actual time.

But, she added, "these problems do take a little longer, and the kids do get really frustrated sometimes,'' she said.

Some teachers, meanwhile, sided with Mr. Usiskin in arguing that the math community has been too willing to uncritically embrace the existing standards.

Catherine Glover, a middle school math teacher from Zachary, La., for example, said some teachers she knows use the standards as a cookbook for classroom practice, adopting without question their assertions, and sometimes dropping years of successful practice in the process.

"There's no critical thinking done by [these] teachers,'' she said.

Ms. Carl, meanwhile, said there are few indications that the public, particularly parents, understands or supports the standards' philosophy of reform.

Noting that many employers consider that "algebra and geometry today are the new basics,'' she said that few schools follow the standards' recommendation to teach these concepts in the early grades. In addition, she said, teacher education programs generally do not reflect the new priorities.

In another session, a panel of teacher-educators argued that, while efforts are being made to revise the collegiate curriculum, those changes often are not widely supported.

Eugene D. Nichols, a professor of education emeritus at Florida State University, noted that the Florida legislature recently appeared poised to approve a measure that would remove most math requirements from the state's elementary teacher-certification program.

Vol. 12, Issue 29

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