‘Testing to the Teaching’

Educators Collaborate to Develop New Math Performance Tasks

It’s not every day that world-renowned mathematics scholars can collaborate side-by-side with K-12 educators. But that’s just what happened in Boston this summer as leading math faculty, including Fields Medal winner David Mumford, joined K-12 teachers from Smarter Balanced states to develop the next phase of mathematics Performance Tasks (PTs) for future tests.

This Boston meeting was the kick-off event for the 2015-16 Mathematics PT Development Cycle, a year-long series of meetings where teachers and experts create performance tasks, one of the components of the Smarter assessments. Think of PTs as more of an extended activity than a test question, though—they consist of several steps that require students to demonstrate multiple skills.

In one example PT for fourth grade, students are asked to help plant tulips at their school. After the teacher introduces the topic and helps students practice, students complete a series of tasks such as converting measurements, figuring out digging depth, and determining how many bulbs can fit in a planter. In the end, students not only demonstrate their mastery of multiple academic standards through a single task, but they also learn to apply classroom knowledge to solving real-world problems, one of the key goals for Common Core standards.

“The intent of a performance task,” said Julie Johns, participant and math teacher in Butte, Montana, “is to give students the opportunity to showcase what they know. I love this way of thinking! ”

Although creating these PTs is crucial for Smarter assessments, it’s not the only goal of the 2015–16 development series. It’s equally important for Smarter Balanced members to work together to develop knowledge and expertise in performance tasks. Each member sent three teachers to participate.

“I think there is a huge misconception that performance tasks are written in a hidden room by men in black suits,” said Johns. “It is so great knowing that these performance tasks are being written by people who truly know and understand students.”

Participants overwhelmingly agreed that the kick-off meeting was a success. “I had the opportunity to observe and contribute to tasks that truly assess students on what educators are teaching,” said Shannon Callahan, a math teacher in Helena, MT. “My involvement in this process removes the myth that we are ‘teaching to the test.’ We are in reality, ‘testing to the teaching.’”

Participants say this phrase—“testing to the teaching”—sums up the benefits of the Smarter Balanced approach to assessment. “The aim of the performance tasks is to showcase students’ reasoning and sense-making strengths,” said Dr. Marilyn Strutchens, professor of mathematics at Auburn University and board member for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. As Strutchens noted, participants hoped that “requiring students to reason and make sense of mathematics on the large-scale assessment would encourage teachers to teach in ways that enable students to problem solve on a daily basis.”

And this is the ultimate goal, of course—that high-quality assessments encourage better teaching and better learning that students can apply to their lives.

If teachers would like to get involved, they should contact their Smarter K-12 state lead.

Thanks to Judy Hickman, Smarter Balanced Director of Mathematics, for her leadership in the Math PT Development Cycle.